The Lakers will be back this season in search of their third consecutive championship, but they're in for a challenge.
The Celtics will be out to avenge last year's seven-game defeat, the Magic are still scary as ever and the Heat have just finished an offseason makeover of legendary proportions. So let's ask our ultimate question: Who wins it all?
It has to come down to those four teams. The Western Conference is crowded with playoff teams ranging from good to great, but none of them are quite in the same class with the Lakers, who enter this season as prohibitive conference favorites. Out East, they've got three main challengers. So one of those four teams — L.A., Boston, Orlando, or Miami — will likely emerge at the top of the basketball world next June.
The Lakers are the sensible choice. They're the two-time defending champions, and a 32-year-old Kobe Bryant is far from too old to win it again. He's got at least one more title in him, and he's got all the motivation in the world to win a sixth championship in 2011. Six rings would cement Kobe's place in history among the all-time greats — he'd be tying Michael Jordan, passing Magic Johnson and putting Shaquille O'Neal completely out of reach. Six is a magic number that Kobe's eyed since he won his first title a decade ago.
The Heat are the hyped choice. With Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh all coming together in Miami this season, fireworks are bound to go off, and Pat Riley's squad will contend for multiple titles down the road. But is this their year? They still don't have a championship-caliber starter at center or point guard, the two most important positions on the floor, and they're forced to make do this season with a ragtag group of aging veterans as the supporting cast around their big three. The Heat will be very, very good, but getting it done in June is a tall order.
The Magic are the conservative choice. They've won three consecutive division titles down in the Southeast, and they still have the best big man in the game in Dwight Howard, surrounded by arguably the best supporting group of outside shooters (although Miami newcomers Mike Miller and Eddie House might have a bone to pick with that second contention). Orlando has consistently been a serious threat to win the title every spring, and while Stan Van Gundy's group has been overlooked amid all the commotion this summer, you could still make the case that on paper, they're the best.
That brings us to the Celtics — and while the above three will all be formidable challengers in the spring of 2011, the C's are the best choice to take the stage and accept the Larry O'Brien trophy in June.
They have the best starting five in the NBA. That's been true for the last three years, and it remains true even with Kendrick Perkins on the sidelines. Two new free-agent centers will anchor a first unit that's loaded with champions at every position, future Hall of Famers across the board, quarterbacked by one of the game's best point guards.
They have talent; they have experience; they have desire. They have the knowledge that if not for a couple of untimely injuries down the stretch last June, they could easily have already brought an 18th banner to Boston.
They have the urgency to win right away. They're not getting any younger, and their core group is under contract for just two more seasons. It's now or never.
Shaq has won four titles before. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo won one together.
The Celtics have the championship pedigree, and from here it's just a matter of working hard to return to the top. They've all been there before, and they all know they can get there again.
The Lakers, Heat and Magic will give everything they've got to winning a title next season. But they'll all come up short in the end, and the Celtics will reign again — just as they have 17 times before.
NESN.com has analyzed 25 key NBA questions this September.
Sept. 24: Who will challenge the Lakers in the West?