In the three-plus weeks since the Lakers became NBA Champs, a lot has happened to the team.
First and foremost, Phil Jackson has agreed to return next season. That means that regardless of what player decisions the personnel gurus make, the team will be in contention to repeat.
Whether or not they do repeat doesn’t seem as likely as it did three weeks ago, in my opinion.
First, I strongly feel that the loss of Trevor Ariza will we monumental. He is a great young talent that fits the Laker mold to a tee, and given the playing time he has now earned, and being injury-free, he will quickly develop into a star, combining tenacity and athleticism with stellar defense and a great outside shot. It would seem, though, that the strong-arm tactics of his agent, rather than his personal desires and the Lakers’ interest were the reasons he is moving to Houston.
Next, replacing Ariza, the Lakers signed a walking time bomb, in Ron Artest. How quickly personnel people, commentators, and fans, all forget the evils this man has committed on the court. On October 18, 2008, I wrote:
“Maybe the biggest question mark is the Houston Rockets. At times last year they were terrible, but then for a few weeks, after the injury to Yao Ming, they were brilliant. Which Houston team will show up this year? Well, I think the addition of Ron Artest is a major mistake and a step backward. Artest is perhaps the most over-rated player in the league, and has done nothing but make his team of the moment worse. He is a time bomb, and at some point during the season, he will explode, and take the team down with him.”
Artest didn’t explode last season (though he did seem to come close a few times), and obviously did not take the Rockets with him. Jackson’s influence would protect the Lakers as a team from such a team-wide reaction, but the chances are excellent that Artest will not get through another full season without an Indiana-Detroit-like event re-occurring. As a player, he is an older, more volatile version of Ariza.
Third, the top competition has strongly improved. Cleveland has Shaq, which will make them tougher, but not give them a title. Orlando has done much re-shaping, but has not improved. A healthy Jameer Nelson will do more for them than exchanging, in effect, Vince Carter for Hedo Turkoglu, who they will quickly learn was a vital key to their team. No, the team to beat in the NBA next season, is the Celtics. Healthy seasons from Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe, the further development of Rajon Rondo into one of the top point guards in the NBA, and the tremendous addition of Rasheed Wallace, and now possibly also Grant Hill, make the Celtics number one in the East, and maybe in the NBA.