The Lakers enter the coming season on their own tier. The defending champions already had the best duo in the league — two top five players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis — then upgraded the talent around them, especially at the point (Dennis Schroder) and at center (Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell). This is a better Lakers team than the one that just hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Can any team knock the Lakers off the mountain top?
Here are five teams with a chance, but they have questions to answer in each case, and they need some breaks to go their way.
1. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The second most talented roster in the NBA on paper, the problem is they were exactly that last season but never developed the chemistry or grit needed to live up to that potential. In Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers have the one player who has shown in recent years he can reach LeBron levels of postseason play (at least for a stretch). We know he can lead a team to a title if healthy. Paired with Paul George, the Clippers have an elite duo, plus around them there is quality depth with Lou Williams, Marcus Morris, Patrick Beverley, plus Serge Ibaka and Ivica Zubac at center. Now add in the shooting of Luke Kennard.
The questions with the Clippers are health — George missed time with shoulder issues last season, Leonard needs load management during the season — and if this year they can build that chemistry and show that grit they lacked blowing a 3-1 series lead to Denver. New coach Tyronn Lue has to demand more accountability from Leonard and George, then and he’s going to have to get the team’s best players on the court at the same time to build good habits and unity (something Rivers was limited in doing because of injuries). If it all comes together, the biggest threat to the Lakers’ supremacy could come from down the hall in their own building.
2. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
The Bucks still have the two-time reigning MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and a cast of shooters around him, which will likely land them on top of the East in the regular season. The questions come in the second round of the playoffs and beyond when Milwaukee runs into defenses that will take away most of the easy transition points and form a wall in front of the Greek Freak — for two years in a row the Bucks have not had an answer for that.
Will the addition of Jrue Holiday — with his shooting and being a floor general — be a better playoff fit next to Antetokounmpo than Bledsoe? Will the depth the Bucks gave up to get Holiday come back to bite them? Will coach Mike Budenholzer make the adjustments needed to get All-Star Khris Middleton into better positions to lift this team in the postseason? Will Brook Lopez keep knocking down playoff threes? Maybe the biggest adjustment needs to come from Antetokounmpo himself — a reliable 15-foot jumper from his spot on the floor taken over the top of the defensive wall teams form in front of him would change everything.
Finally, can the Bucks handle the incredible pressure to win if Antetokounmpo does not sign the supermax extension in front of him before Dec. 21 and sets himself up for free agency next summer? That question will be a black cloud that follows them all season (unless he signs).
3. BROOKLYN NETS
Brooklyn is this high on the list because if it all comes together, this may be the second best team in the league in terms of talent. But there are so many questions, starting with the big one: Just how good is Kevin Durant coming back from his torn Achilles? In the two playoffs before that injury he was the Finals MVP and the best player on the planet, out-dueling LeBron on the NBA’s biggest stage. Is Durant that player again, or 85% of that guy?
If Durant is his old self, if Kyrie Irving can stay healthy and be the No. 2 (or, No. 1A) next to Durant, if first-year coach Steve Nash can layer those stars on top of a strong rotation of role players — Caris LeVert as the No. 3, followed by Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and more — this team can be a threat to knock off the Bucks, Lakers, and everyone else. However, history suggests it often takes a season or more of the players adjusting to each other (and a couple of roster tweaks for fit) before it all comes together. The Nets are on the clock and want to beat that timeline.
4. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Like Brooklyn above, this is about the potential ceiling, but with reservations about their ability to meet it. Philadelphia has its own elite duo with Joel Embiid as potentially the best center in the game, with Ben Simmons as the shot creator driving the lane. Brett Brown never quite got them to mesh, but also took the fall for questionable roster building decisions by Elton Brand (going big, no shooting).
Philadelphia will space the floor better with Danny Green and Seth Curry. New coach Doc Rivers will bring both accountability — particularly to Embiid and Simmons, they will not be handled with kid gloves — and some of his Lob City sets that helped use Blake Griffin and others as playmakers in L.A. Tobias Harris thrived under Rivers before. If Rivers gets this roster to mesh, if the 76ers reach their potential, they are a real threat to come out of the East and win it all. But if Simmons and Embiid just don’t fit together, this is the season Philadelphia needs to acknowledge it, and Daryl Morey will have to get busy with the trade machine and some tough decisions.
5. DENVER NUGGETS/MIAMI HEAT/BOSTON CELTICS
Yes, it is cheating to put three teams on one tier, but these squads are all on about the same level and in the same place — one player away.
Miami made the Finals last year but put me in the camp that thinks the Heat are a good team that was also suited in temperament for the bubble. Can Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and company replicate that success in a more traditional format this season? In Denver, Jamal Murray made a leap and Nikola Jokic is an elite talent, but is Michael Porter Jr. or someone else the No. 3 option they need on the biggest stages? Boston still has Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but Gordon Hayward is gone, Kemba Walker is starting the season recovering from knee surgery, and this team feels like it took half-a-step back in talent on the floor.
Maybe one of those teams will prove that assessment wrong — or an aggressive front office will make a move that better completes the roster. Denver, Miami, and Boston are close, but can they make the leap needed to truly threaten the Lakers this season?