In Miami, it's all about the Big Three. In L.A., the title talk begins and ends with Kobe's knee.
We know this about Kobe Bryant: He observed the Miami Heat's go-for-the-jugular moves this summer with a mixture of amusement and motivation. Teammate Derek Fisher said there's "no question" Bryant's competitive fire has been stoked by the Miami Big Three's efforts to stop him from getting his three-peat.
"He's constantly searching for those opportunities to basically make himself mad," Fisher told me recently. "He likes all three of those guys, and I think he loves the challenge and competition that lies ahead. I think it stokes a fire in him."
But Bryant, the undisputed king of the post-Michael Jordan era until somebody proves otherwise, has another challenge ahead of him that has nothing to do with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teaming up in Miami. This challenge inhabits his (again) surgically repaired right knee, which has limited Bryant during preseason and, according to Phil Jackson, will limit Bryant's minutes at the start of his 15th regular season.
Here are some sobering facts for Lakers fans: If Bryant doesn't miss any games, he will surpass the number of games Jordan logged in his entire career by the All-Star break. To date, Bryant has played 1,219 regular-season and playoff games; Jordan finished his career with 1,251. If Bryant averages 35 minutes a game this season -- a significant reduction from the 39 he averaged last season -- he'll just about equal the 48,484 minutes Jordan logged in his career. Bryant begins his 15th season with 45,177 regular-season and playoff minutes on his body. That's a lot of mileage.
If Bryant, among the most supremely conditioned NBA players of his era, can maintain his ironman status and step over James and Wade for his sixth championship (tying Jordan), it won't be a stretch to say that Bryant will have equaled, if not surpassed His Airness in the pantheon of NBA greats. But that's a big if -- not only considering the talent Miami has assembled, but the age and health concerns that could get in Bryant's way.
The Pacific Division still belongs to the Lakers regardless of whether Bryant remains at the top of his powers. But division titles mean nothing to Bryant (he of the five championships) or Jackson (who has more rings than fingers). This season represents perhaps the greatest challenge to Bryant, to his legacy, and most of all, to his body. If Kobe's healthy, we'll get the showdown that everybody wants in June: Not just Kobe vs. LeBron, but Kobe vs. LeBron and his army. The biggest wild card of the NBA season isn't whether LeBron and Wade can coexist, but whether Bryant and age can do the same.
Predicted order of finish (2009-10 records):
1. Lakers (57-25)
2. Suns (54-28)
3. Clippers (29-53)
4. Warriors (26-56)
5. Kings (25-57)
|Andrew Bynum overcame injury to help the Lakers to title No. 16. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: One thing everyone has been waiting to go wrong for the Lakers has been the decline of Fisher. Hasn't happened. Even if it does this season, GM Mitch Kupchak hedged his bets by getting a quality backup in Steve Blake -- albeit playing in the triangle for the first time. Short of a weakness at point guard, the respective knees of Bryant and Bynum will be the Lakers' only potential undoing.
X-factor: Matt Barnes. He'll bring a little 3-point shooting, some length on defense and a lot of toughness. Call him Artest Lite. The combination of Barnes and Blake with Lamar Odom makes the Lakers' bench far more potent than it was during either of the past two championship runs.
|Robin Lopez's progress in his second year was promising for the Suns. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: Not to contradict myself, but Turkoglu's game requires him to have the ball in his hands. He chafed at being turned into a stand-still jump-shooter in Toronto. What happens when he teams up with Steve Nash who, in case you haven't noticed, tends to have the ball in his hands for the Suns' offense to work? Phoenix also will get beat up around the basket, unless Warrick or second-year forward Earl Clark takes a major step forward.
X-factor: Robin Lopez. He doubled his minutes and nearly tripled his points-per-game from Year 1 to Year 2. With Stoudemire gone, the Suns need Robin to start playing more like his brother, Brook.
|Blake Griffin hopes to help the Clippers climb after missing '09-10. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: When you think of such a notion, Davis is one of the first players to come to mind. The Clippers need more than a breakout year from Griffin to make the playoffs for only the second time in 14 years. They need Davis to be in shape, engaged, motivated -- and a lot of other things he hasn't shown the propensity to be.
X-factor: Randy Foye. The Clippers will have a decent first unit with Griffin, Davis, Gordon, Kaman and the serviceable Ryan Gomes. It's a stretch to say Foye could be the steadying force with the second unit, but the Clippers need him to be if they're going to have a realistic chance of making the playoffs.
|David Lee brings a growing offensive game and tenacious rebounding. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: It's a new day in the Bay Area, with Smart finally taking over for Nellie. Unfortunately for Smart, he's taking over the same dysfunctional roster. Smart might coach defense better than Nellie -- who doesn't? -- but that doesn't mean his players will play it better. In fact, the Warriors' most important offseason acquisition, Lee, is notably challenged on the defensive end. But the biggest problem is that when you start adding up the players who left this summer -- Kelenna Azubuike, Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf, Corey Maggette, Anthony Tolliver and Anthony Morrow -- the addition of solid pickups Rodney Carney and Louis Amundson hardly will be enough to make up for it. The W's bench, depth and versatility will be greatly diminished.
X-factor: Jeremy Lin. One of the stars of Las Vegas Summer League earned himself a two-year contract (only the first guaranteed) and will have a chance to become the first American-born Asian player in NBA history. He's lightning quick, fearless and will be a good fit off the bench for the Warriors' breakneck style.
|Tyreke Evans might get a bit frustrated by clogged driving lanes. (Getty Images)|
What could go wrong: Samuel Dalembert will only strengthen what already is a solid rebounding team, but there's precious little shooting on this roster. Evans is a force with the ball in his hands, but could quickly become frustrated when opposing defensives pack it in because there are no floor-spacers to give him some room to operate.
X-factor: Let's not kid ourselves into thinking that some hidden talent on Paul Westphal's bench can emerge to help the Kings recapture their glory days in Arco Arena, which may not be hosting NBA competition for much longer. But if there's a revelation to be had, it could come in the form of Pooh Jeter, a speedy point guard who earned himself a contract with a strong performance at Summer League.