There were doubts last season about whether the Los Angeles Lakers could still compete for a championship.
They had aged another year. They were without Trevor Ariza, a key perimeter defender and shotmaker. They had added Ron Artest, who always adds an element of insanity wherever he goes. There were plenty of reasons to question the Lakers, but in the end, they answered all those questions and then some. They earned their 16th banner.
2009-10 Record: 57-25 (first in Pacific Division, first in Western Conference, beat Celtics in NBA Finals)
Celtics' record vs. Lakers: 152-120 all time, 1-1 last season, lost NBA Finals in seven
Familiar faces: Lamar Odom (played one season at the University of Rhode Island), Theo Ratliff (played two games for the Celtics in 2007 before being packaged into a trade for Kevin Garnett), Luke Walton (his father, Bill, spent two years of his Hall of Fame career with the Celtics)
Key additions: Matt Barnes (free agent), Steve Blake (free agent), Theo Ratliff (free agent), Devin Ebanks (draft), Derrick Caracter (draft)
Key losses: Jordan Farmar (signed with Nets), Josh Powell (signed with Hawks)
Burning question: Are the Lakers the favorites again?
If you're going to say no to this question, you can go one of three routes.
You can side with the Celtics, who were up 3-2 in the Finals this spring and may have won had they been healthy. You can pick the Miami Heat superteam that's added LeBron James, Chris Bosh and a stockpile of able-bodied veterans. Or you can pick an Orlando Magic team that on paper looked better than anyone before the Celtics ousted them in the East finals.
But until one of those three powers steps up and shows the Lakers who's boss, you still have to side with the defending champs for now. The Lakers have gotten deeper with the additions of Barnes and Blake (and Ebanks, who may see a bit of playing time as a rookie). They've added a year of experience, which may help with some of the youngsters like Andrew Bynum and Shannon Brown. And they've all got another ring — and with each ring Kobe Bryant gets, he just keeps getting more and more confident.
The title is L.A.'s to lose. Not to say they won't lose it, but I wouldn't bet on them doing so.
2010-11 outlook: The sky's the limit. The Lakers have now won Western Conference titles in each of the last three years, winning 57, 65 and 57 games. With Barnes and Blake and a healthy starting five, there's nothing stopping them from winning 65 again, or maybe more. Phil Jackson loves a three-peat, and his Lakers are in position to pull one off now.
Did you know? The Lakers and Celtics have met in the NBA Finals a record 12 times. The Celtics won the first eight meetings, starting with Bill Russell's second ring in 1959 and ending with Larry Bird's second in 1984. But since 1985, the Lakers have taken home the trophy in three of the four Finals meetings with the Celtics, including the seven-game thriller in June. Jerry West, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant are the only four Lakers to win a Finals MVP against the Celtics.