Lakers still the team to beat
LeBron's super team has a long road to follow before it's a legitimate contender
There's a new Big Three standing in the way of the Lakers and a three-peat championship.
LeBron James announced Thursday he will join his buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, hoping to validate his nickname of "The King" by winning a ring and unseating the Lakers from their throne.
Before it became official, Kobe Bryant addressed the new super squad with the Lakers firmly in its crosshairs on Wednesday from his camp in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"You put a group of guys like that together, it's obviously extremely formidable," Bryant said. "You look at the Celtics and what they were able to do with their Big Three; absolutely they're a threat."
A threat? Sure. But as much as the heat is on the Lakers to defend their title by beating the King and his two dukes next season, it's not like they'll be facing a fully formed empire.
It reminds me of that terrible '90s movie "Bowfinger" in which Steve Martin's character has what he believes to be the perfect catch phrase for the movie he's making -- "Gotcha, suckers!" -- but doesn't have the rest of the script figured out. The Heat have their Big Three on board, but what about the rest of the roster that will have to compete with the Lakers, whose core is titanium strong one through six, not just one through three?
The only other players signed at the moment in Miami are Michael Beasley (who is expected to be out the door in a sign-and-trade to ultimately land Bosh) and Mario Chalmers (whose only reward for going from second-round pick to starter is giving up his No. 6 jersey to James when he arrives). The Heat's trio of draft picks -- Dexter Pittman (Texas), Jarvis Varnado (Mississippi State) and Da'Sean Butler (West Virginia) -- have good shots at making the team as minimum-salary space fillers so Miami reaches the minimum roster size of 13.
Bryant and Pau Gasol serve as the red and white cells of the Lakers' lifeblood, but the team's championship aspirations wouldn't have a pulse if it wasn't for Bynum towering over opponents, Odom filling in the gaps, Artest shutting down scorers and Fisher flinging in big shot after big shot.
ROAD TO REPEAT
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Since Miami will come in below the cap next season, the Heat won't have the midlevel exception available to them this offseason. That's an option only for teams like the Lakers who are in the luxury tax already to have a chance to sign a new piece. So forget about the Heat adding a guy like Shaquille O'Neal, Mike Miller, Josh Howard, Luke Ridnour or Kyle Lowry to turn their Big Three into a quasi Big Four. Miami will have to target veterans willing to play for the minimum to chase a ring, and that group includes names such as Jason Williams, Juwan Howard, Flip Murray, Rafer Alston, Tim Thomas, Etan Thomas, Kurt Thomas or maybe even Tracy McGrady -- a group that is far less inspiring.
And what about the coach?
Phil Jackson is back for 2010-11, re-energized now that he has a new challenge in front of him of capturing an unprecedented fourth three-peat. Should the Lakers make it to their fourth straight Finals and meet Miami, the guy down the sideline from Jackson will be Erik Spoelstra, the youngest head coach in the league. He has only two years of experience so far and has yet to win a playoff series, let alone a championship.
Many believe Heat president Pat Riley will return to the sidelines the way he did in 2005-06 when he got rid of Stan Van Gundy at midseason because the lure of capturing another ring was having a Gollum-like effect on him. Riley certainly would make the coaching battle more of a heavyweight fight than a mismatch, but I don't see that happening. Don't discount the fact that Spoelstra is Riley's hand-picked apprentice, the son chosen to take over the family business. What would it say about Riley if he turned his back on Spoelstra? Then again, the whole genesis of this Heat group wreaks of betrayal, what with James putting together a prime-time, nationally televised, one-hour special just to tell his hometown he was leaving it. I guess it would be par for the course.
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But we're getting ahead of ourselves if we start pitting South Beach against Manhattan Beach already.
The Lakers were a tip-in away from being in a Game 7 in the first round with Oklahoma City. Plus, Dallas, Denver and San Antonio are well-coached teams with the length and the one transcendent star (Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony and Tim Duncan, respectively) that could turn the lights out on the Lake Show in a playoff series.
The Heat will have to contend with a Boston team that has been to two of the past three NBA Finals and was four points from winning a second ring this June, and an Orlando team that features Dwight Howard, who ousted Bosh and the Raptors from the postseason in 2008 and James and the Cavs from the postseason in '09. Not to mention Chicago with Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and a better supporting cast than the Heat.
The only things that are guaranteed regarding the Lakers and the Heat next season are the two regular-season meetings they have on the schedule and the fact that LeBron's puppet will be wearing a different jersey in commercials with puppet Kobe and Lil' Dez.
Until LeBron & Co. actually meet and unseat the Lakers for the title, they might as well just be called The Miami Hype.
The Lakers continue to be The Los Angeles Legitimates.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcten