As the Celtics think back to a traumatic Kendrick Perkins injury, a flurry of missed Ray Allen 3-pointers and an agonizing second-half collapse in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, they know how close they came to winning an NBA championship last month. And it can't sit well with them that their hated rivals, the L.A. Lakers, are basking in the thrill of victory. The C's must be out for revenge. But are the Lakers still the team to beat?
A lot has happened this summer to alter the course of NBA history. The Miami Heat have created a veritable superteam by combining Dwyane Wade with two more superstars, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, partially reassembling a Team USA roster that won gold in Beijing.
The Knicks are rebuilding around Amare Stoudemire and Raymond Felton.
The Bulls have added Carlos Boozer to an already-scary roster.
The Mavericks have kept Dirk Nowitzki, the Hawks have kept Joe Johnson, the Grizzlies have kept Rudy Gay and of course the C's have kept their captain, Paul Pierce.
And yet the Lakers have maintained that for them, it's not about making big overhauls or blockbuster free-agent signings. It's about maintaining the status quo.
And oh, what a status quo it's been.
The Lakers have now won back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010, giving them five in the Kobe Bryant era and a sweet 16 overall in franchise history. When Kobe and the Lakers took down Pierce and the Celtics in June, it established them not only as the top dog in today's NBA, but as a historical basketball juggernaut for the ages.
But as the Celtics gear up to make a run at a repeat of 2008 — and with all the principal players coming back, they'll inevitably give it a shot — it's now unclear exactly who they're gunning for.
Is it the Heat, who have assembled together three of the world's greatest talents and are now working to build a supporting cast?
Is it the Magic, who looked like the scariest team in the NBA playoffs last season on paper, right up until the Celtics knocked them out in the Eastern Conference finals?
Is it one of any number of dangerous, talent-loaded teams still lurking out West — Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Utah, Portland?
No, no, and no. Not yet, at least.
It may be a cliche, but the statement holds true for a reason: The champs are the champs until someone beats them and proves otherwise. In this case, it's the Lakers — until further notice, they're top dog.
There is no shortage of dangerous teams in today's NBA, but even the scariest of opponents has its warts.
The Heat might not have the depth to survive a long season. The Magic might not have the mental toughness to get over the hump. All those teams out West might not have the commitment to defense, rebounding and all those little things that help win championships.
The Lakers might not be perfect, either, but in the sea of imperfection and uncertainty that is the NBA every July, the reigning champions get the benefit of the doubt.
NESN.com will answer one Celtics question every day in July.
Tuesday, July 20: Will Luke Harangody make the team?
Thursday, July 22: Will the Eastern Conference be tougher next season?