Our 5-on-5 crew takes a peek at the title contenders who appear to be headed in opposite directions heading into their Christmas Day matchup (ABC, 5 p.m. ET).
1. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers' days as contenders are done.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com:
Fiction. They could be like the 2010 Celtics, who we thought were done and managed to come within a quarter of winning the championship. They also have tradable assets in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum that could allow them to reconfigure.
Nick Friedell, ESPN Chicago: Fiction. The Lakers still have Kobe Bryant on their team. That alone still makes them a contender.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Fiction. That seems a bit pessimistic. Are the Lakers as infallible as we assumed in the past? No. People are questioning Pau's heart, Kobe's age and Bynum's skeletal structure. But this team still boasts a huge front line, decent enough depth, and a couple of the top players in the league. Plus, let's all remember Kobe became a vampire this summer and vampires are in.
John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: Fiction. Rumors of Kobe's impending demise have been exaggerated, Bynum is a top-five center and Pau Gasol will bounce back from his poor playoff showing.
Dave McMenamin, ESPN LA: Fiction. The Lakers have won 10 championships in the 32 years since Dr. Jerry Buss bought the team in 1979. He has proved he is the type of owner to do whatever is necessary to field a contending team. As of right now, the Lakers would be a shocker to win it all this season, but Dwight Howard is still on the market.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Bulls are the best team in the East.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Fiction. We learned in last season's playoffs that the Heat have an antidote for Derrick Rose: LeBron James. Last season was Chicago's best shot at the Heat, when Miami was in the learning phase of its grand experiment. This season will be less turbulent for the Heat, which means it'll be more difficult for the Bulls to get past them.
Nick Friedell, ESPN Chicago: Fiction. It's Miami's world, and the Bulls know until they knock the Heat off in the Eastern Conference finals, that won't change.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Fact. I don't think this means they're likely to beat Miami in the playoffs. That remains to be seen. But from 1 through 10 on their roster, they're the deepest and best team in the East. Adding Richard Hamilton was a low-risk move to grab some more perimeter scoring, and their defense should help them roll through the regular season.
John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: Fiction. I give them a good chance to beat the Heat, especially with Rip Hamilton now at the 2. But I think the Heat beat the Bulls in a seven-game series six out of 10 times.
Dave McMenamin, ESPN LA: Fiction. Derrick Rose is only going to get better and Rip Hamilton was a great addition to address their shooting guard woes, but Miami will own the East. I envision the Heat steamrolling through competition this season with the memory of their Finals loss to the Mavericks as constant motivation, like the way the Lakers did in 2008-09 after losing to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals. The Heat will win it all in 2011-12.
3. Which team faces more pressure in 2011-12: Bulls or Lakers?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Lakers. Their best player is 33, not 23 like Chicago's. The demands of their fan base are higher: championship or else. And now they have a battle on their hands just for supremacy in their own building.
Nick Friedell, ESPN Chicago: Bulls. With Hamilton in the fold, the Bulls would appear to have all the pieces to knock off the Heat this season. If they can't do it now, Bulls fans will start to wonder if the Heat will always be the kind of hump that Derrick Rose & Co. can't get over.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: It's easily the Lakers. The Bulls are still young and no matter how good they are in the regular season, they're still in the shadow of the spotlight on the Miami Heat in the East. The Lakers, however, are older and much more dramatic in the public eye. People want to know if Kobe still has it or if the Lakers can still dominate the West.
John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: Lakers. Barring a Dwight Howard-to-L.A. deal, the Lakers are old. The Bulls are not.
Dave McMenamin, ESPN LA:
Lakers. The Bulls' core of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah is still young enough for Chicago to retool everything around it year by year for the next five seasons to ensure a championship. The Lakers, as currently constructed, have only one or two more years left to be considered a title threat because Kobe Bryant can't go on being a top-five MVP candidate forever.
4. Make one bold prediction for either the Bulls or Lakers.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Bold prediction: The Lakers will go deeper into the playoffs than the Bulls. The Bulls had moments of vulnerability during last season's playoffs. Maybe the breaks don't go their way this time. The Lakers might have just enough left to get through a couple of rounds.
Nick Friedell, ESPN Chicago: Bold prediction: Joakim Noah makes the All-Star team this season.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Bold prediction: This is a preview of the NBA Finals. Is it crazy to think the Lakers have it together enough to fight their way through the Western Conference? Is it crazy to think the Bulls have enough firepower to make it past the perimeter defense of the Heat? Well, probably. But let's just go with it for now.
John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: Bold prediction: The Lakers will, in spite of everything, make it to the Western Conference finals -- and possibly further. When they do, Mike Brown's defense will be a major factor.
Dave McMenamin, ESPN LA:
Bold prediction: Andrew Bynum will make it through the entire season without a major injury. After missing an average of 31 games a season the last four years because of myriad maladies, Bynum is poised to finally have a full, dominant season. I would have predicted that Bynum would play every game, but he has to serve a four-game suspension to start the season for his hit on J.J. Barea last spring in the Western Conference semifinals.
5. Who will win this Christmas?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Bulls. The Lakers haven't adapted to new coach Mike Brown's system yet. Plus the Lakers are 4-7 at Staples Center on Christmas Day ... so much for home for the holidays.
Nick Friedell, ESPN Chicago: The Bulls. The Lakers don't have Bynum (suspension). The Bulls have added Hamilton. Rose wants to put on a show in front of the whole country.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Chicago. The Bulls are healthy to start the season and that defense is going to be suffocating for a Lakers team trying to deal with a whole new scheme. Plus, the Lakers are 3-7 in their last 10 Christmas Day games. They clearly are saving it up for Memorial Day or Flag Day.
John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: Bulls. The Lakers have more adjustments to make at the beginning of the season than the Bulls do, so Chicago should be in better shape on opening day.
Dave McMenamin, ESPN LA: Chicago. It's the better team right now and the Lakers have laid an egg the last two years on Christmas Day. I don't think this is the year they break that trend.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
J.A. Adande is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Nick Friedell covers the Bulls for ESPN Chicago. Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPN LA. Zach Harper, John Krolik write for the TrueHoop Network.
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