Under the Radar

Miami's talent grab allows 2-time champ Lakers to keep low profile

The two-time defending champion Lakers are a virtual afterthought entering this season, after Miami's big offseason moves.
Andrew D. Bernstein /NBAE/Getty Images
Editor’s note: Pistons.com concludes its series of NBA previews with a look at the Pacific Division.

How is it possible that the two-time defending NBA champions, seated in the glamour capital of the world and with the transcendent star of his generation wearing their uniform, go into the 2010-11 season a distant second on the buzz meter?

Here’s how: The two transcendent stars of their generation decided to join forces in Miami, and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade coaxed Chris Bosh into joining them on South Beach. In the most anticipated free-agent summer since Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady and Tim Duncan hit the market 10 years earlier, Pat Riley managed to land all three.

That might be a huge problem next June, should Miami navigate the East’s choppy waters and advance to the NBA Finals, but for now it leaves the Lakers again the clear province of Kobe Bryant and pals. And the Pacific Division? The safest bet of the NBA season is picking the Lakers over a weak field diminished further by Amare Stoudemire’s departure from Phoenix.

It wouldn’t be a huge shocker if the Lakers’ Staples Center co-tenants, the Clippers, wound up posing the biggest challenge. Getting back the 2009 No. 1 pick, Blake Griffin, after he missed what should have been his rookie season, and having an engaged Baron Davis give the Clips a chance to crack the deep West’s playoff field.

The situation isn’t completely bleak up the Coast, where Sacramento and Golden State are playoff long shots but at least have the pieces in place to consider the possibility in the not-too-distant future.

Here’s Pistons.com’s look at the Pacific Division:

1. LOS ANGELES LAKERS – On the free agency Richter scale, if the signings of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were solid 10s, the Lakers’ addition of Matt Barnes was no better than a 5. But come June, if Miami survives the East, the presence of Barnes to go with Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant on the wings to guard the Heat’s overabundance of perimeter scorers will make it one of the most significant – and likely the most overlooked – off-season additions.

The Lakers have two overriding strengths: their great interior size and Bryant’s otherworldly skill and cold-blooded mentality. But much depends on 7-footer Andrew Bynum, who’s managed to log more than 65 games only once in his first five seasons and won’t be available to start the season – and maybe not at full strength until 2011, Phil Jackson has suggested. When Bynum is anchoring the middle, Pau Gasol is relieved of guarding the opposition’s top post scorer and Lamar Odom becomes the NBA’s top frontcourt reserve. Staying healthy is an across-the-board worry for the Lakers, who with their top-heavy payroll don’t have the quality of depth other elite contenders possess.

The other significant off-season addition is veteran point guard Steve Blake, expected to be an ideal fit in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense for his 3-point shooting, size and passing ability. Rookie Derrick Caracter, a late second-rounder, could be a nice surprise after opening eyes in the NBA Summer League.

2. PHOENIX SUNS – The Suns won’t score in quite the same ways without Stoudemire around anymore, but chances are very good that Phoenix will still score with the best of them. As long as Steve Nash remains active and ambulatory, Phoenix will be one of the NBA’s most unique and dangerous offensive teams.

The strength of the team lies in its perimeter scorers, even with the loss of Leandro Barbosa in a trade with Toronto that helped the Suns address Stoudemire’s departure by adding Hedo Turkoglu. Turkoglu probably will wind up playing plenty at power forward for the Suns, who still have Grant Hill and added ex-Hawks swingman Josh Childress after two years in Greece. Goran Dragic’s surprising second-year performance allowed ex-Pistons coach Alvin Gentry to give Nash appropriate rest and Jared Dudley’s shooting and savvy plays well in this system.

It’s up front where the Suns risk being exposed. The only two players on the roster who pass for big men are 7-footers Robin Lopez and Channing Frye, the latter very much a finesse power forward. Curiously, the Suns didn’t seem to pursue their own free agent, high-energy backup big man Louis Amundson, and allowed him to get away to Golden State as a free agent.

3. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS – For a team that sat at the table with James and dared to dream big as free agency dawned, the Clippers’ eventual haul of ex-Timberwolves Craig Smith, Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes was, um, underwhelming. But the wealth of lottery picks the Clippers have accrued for years through their dogged pursuit of mediocrity has blessed them with enough talent to climb past .500 and challenge for a playoff spot.

Success will start with Davis, who if properly motivated can hold his own with any point guard in the league. Eric Gordon flashed his scoring potential as a surprise contributor on Team USA over the summer and Chris Kaman, though limited defensively due to mobility issues, is a scoring and rebounding force in the middle.

The biggest reason the Clippers could be significantly better, though, is the long-awaited debut of 2009 No. 1 pick Griffin, who missed all of last year with a knee injury. The bench is going to rely on rookies Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu at some point for contributions, but if the Clippers stay healthy they’ve got enough firepower to have a shot at the playoffs.

4. SACRAMENTO KINGS – The Kings now have a clear path out of the deep lottery forest. They have the reigning Rookie of the Year, Tyreke Evans, the player who’ll have the ball in his hands at the end of games for them for the next decade whether he stays at point guard or not. And they have a potential dominant big man in monstrous DeMarcus Cousins, who on talent alone should have challenged his Kentucky freshman John Wall for the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

Concerns about conditioning and temperament pushed Cousins down to No. 5, and those are legitimate issues that could render Cousins to the dust bin of lottery history. But the upside is enormous and could give the Kings one of the West’s top frontcourts by season’s end when you throw in 7-foot shot-blocker Samuel Dalembert – out for perhaps the season’s first month with a groin strain – to go with highly productive Carl Landry and the still-improving Jason Thompson.

It’s on the wings where the Kings suffer greatly when stacked up against Western playoff contenders. Some would argue there isn’t a legitimate shooting guard on the roster, but Francisco Garcia and Antoine Wright will have to eat up minutes there for Paul Westphal’s team. The situation is much the same at small forward, where Omri Casspi is a fine second-year prospect but best served by playing situationally at this point. He’s backed by another green player – Donte Greene, who left Syracuse two years ago after a freshman season that excited few.

5. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS – It speaks to the despair Chris Cohan’s sad stewardship of this once-proud franchise produced that the greatest hope the Warriors gave their fans over the off-season was the transfer of ownership to Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. The next shoe to drop came on the day before camp opened: Longtime coach Don Nelson was ousted in favor of assistant Keith Smart, which means the Warriors will now play more conventionally.

On the court, the big move of the summer was trading a package centered around the potential of Anthony Randolph to the Knicks for double-double dynamo David Lee. Whatever help Golden State can offer Lee won’t come from its frontcourt, where Andris Biedrins is a rebound monster but an offensive liability, Brandan Wright has yet to stay healthy in three NBA seasons and rookie lottery pick Ekpe Udoh – the surprising pick at No. 6, leaving the Pistons to get their man, Greg Monroe – will miss at least the first half of the season with a broken wrist.

Golden State’s backcourt of Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis packs a punch but gets abused defensively. There’s not much else around them on the perimeter, though. Dorell Wright is the putative starter at small forward and the alternatives are Vlad Radmanovic, Charlie Bell and D-Leaguer Reggie Williams.