JOHN IRELAND BLOG  |  ESPN Los Angeles

Are the Lakers still the team to beat?

February 19, 2010, 12:56 AM

By: John Ireland

Thursday turned out to be a long, strange day for the Lakers. First they watched several of their top competitors make trade deadline deals, while they stood pat. Then, playing without Kobe Bryant, they watched the Celtics put an end to L.A.'s four-game winning streak.

The fact that Boston won the game was no surprise. As I've written before, when the Celtics are healthy, I'm convinced they're the third-best team in the NBA. They're better than every team except the Lakers and Cleveland. Take Kobe away from L.A., and the Celtics should win at Staples Center. The Lakers made a great comeback and kept it close, but Boston won it 87-86.

But I heard from a lot of Lakers fans today who were upset that L.A. didn't make a trade. It wasn't for lack of trying. We had Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak on the "Mason & Ireland" show Thursday afternoon, and he told us he talked to every other GM in the league leading up to the deadline. Kupchak said he thought the Lakers were close on a couple of different deals, but that he was committed to keeping the core players of last year's championship team together. Meanwhile, Portland, Dallas, Houston, Cleveland and Boston all made key deals.

But did any of those teams improve enough to challenge the Lakers?

Portland, the team currently in eighth place in the Western Conference, clearly improved. The Trail Blazers tend to give the Lakers fits, especially in Oregon, and now they have a center. Marcus Camby is second in the NBA in rebounding this season, and the Blazers didn't have to give up any of their core rotation to get him. But I just don't think the Blazers could win a series with the Lakers, even with Camby. They might stretch it to six or seven games, but that's as far as it would go.

Dallas now has as much offensive firepower as L.A. By picking up Caron Butler, the Mavericks can put him on the court with Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion. That's a team that can score with anybody. But the Mavs were a middle-of-the-pack defensive team before the trade (ranked 15th), and they didn't get any better on defense after the move. I think if the Lakers ended up in a series with the Mavericks, Dallas wouldn't be able to handle the size or height of L.A.

Houston improved by picking up high-scoring Kevin Martin, and the Rockets will score a lot more now. But Carl Landry, one of the players the Rockets sent to Sacramento in the deal, was a key part of their team. Landry was especially good against the Lakers, both as a scorer and a rebounder. I'm not sure the Rockets improved overall. Without Yao Ming, Houston might not even make the postseason.

The only way the Lakers would see either Boston or Cleveland is the NBA Finals. And I would argue that if either team makes it that far, both are now better equipped to beat L.A.

Boston is a long shot to get there, but I might be the last guy to jump off of the Celtics' bandwagon. If they can get everybody through their various injuries, this team is absolutely loaded. Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett are All-Stars, and at any given time they can put Paul Pierce, Rasheed Wallace and Ray Allen on the floor with them. Now they've traded for Nate Robinson, who is exactly the kind of change-of-pace spark plug the team didn't have. On top of that, the Celtics play solid team defense. Coming into Thursday's game, they ranked first in the NBA in points allowed with 93, and then they held the Lakers to 86. I don't care how many people tell me Boston is old and done. I'm not sleeping on the Celtics.

Cleveland made the biggest deal on deadline day. The Cavs were able to get Antawn Jamison from Washington, without giving up any of their core players. In a weird twist, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the player they traded, will probably re-sign in Cleveland after the Wizards release him. The end result is that the Cavs were able to add Jamison without subtracting anybody important. But it's always risky to mess with team chemistry in the middle of the season. On Thursday night, the first game after the trade, the Cavs had their 13-game winning streak snapped by Denver (although Jamison didn't play). I would argue that when they've had a few practices, the Cavs will be better. And that means Cleveland should now be the favorite to win it all, with the Lakers a close second.

Still, I like the Lakers' chances. Although they've lost both games to the Cavs this year, I just can't imagine any team beating L.A. four times in a two-week stretch.

But my guess is I'm going to get a chance to find out.

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