If you’re a Lakers fan, you might raise an eyebrow to know that John Hollinger, now a writer for The Athletic but who was formerly an executive for the Memphis Grizzlies, came up with a sizable list of nine teams that could derail the Lakers’ attempts to repeat as NBA champions. After all, L.A. rolled through the league’s playoffs with a 16-5 record, and never appeared to be truly threatened in any of its four postseason series.
But on closer inspection, Hollinger only included two teams in his first tier of what he called of “legitimately threatening” rivals to the Lakers’ designs on winning again next season. And judging by the way those teams fared in last season’s playoffs, there should not be much sweat on the Lakers’ brows after all.
That’s because both teams, the Bucks and Clippers, were also the top threats to the Lakers last year and both utterly flopped in the playoffs, ousted in the second round. Milwaukee was thrashed by the Heat, losing in five games—falling behind, 3-0, even when star Giannis Antetokounmpo was healthy—and the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead to Denver.
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As deep and talented as each of those teams seemed to be during the regular season, their flaws were laid bare in the postseason—while the flaws of the Lakers, on the other hand, only got better masked by the overwhelming star power of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Bucks, Clippers Will Still Have Talent, Despite Flaws
Now, both Milwaukee and the Clippers will have the chance to make adjustments this offseason. The Clippers have already begun to do so, moving on from coach Doc Rivers to bring in another former champion mentor Ty Lue.
They’re likely to make some adjustments to personnel, with Montrezl Harrell probably leaving in free agency and trade opportunities arising among some of the team’s young players. They should benefit most, though, from having a season of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George playing together. There will be chemistry issues to work out, but the Clippers do figure to be near the top of the league again next year.
The Bucks, meanwhile, probably have a little too much familiarity and could benefit from some major offseason upgrades. That could involve point guard Chris Paul—who has been connected to the Lakers in some rumors—the kind of veteran who could bring together a group that seemed to seize up in important situations.
Still, if the best the league has to challenge the Lakers next year is to offer up different versions of the Bucks and Clippers, that’s not a bad situation for the purple-and-gold.
Warriors, Celtics Also Rate High as Lakers Threats
Some more difficult threats might arise from the lower tiers that Hollinger identified. Most intriguing among them might be the Warriors, who should have a fully healthy trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green back in the fold next year.
They’ve also got mystery wing Andrew Wiggins, who would need to (finally) take a major step forward to truly count as a championship contributor. They have the No. 2 pick in this draft and Minnesota’s pick next year, plus a sizable trade exception. If they play their opportunities just right, the Warriors could re-emerge as a contender.
The Celtics, too, remain a threat, a team that is loaded with talent but ran out of luck and health in the playoffs. If they can come up with a score on the free-agent market and continue to see development from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, they could be the East’s top threat for years to come.
Hollinger identified, of course, the defending East champs, the Heat, as a team with a shot, in what he labeled “Tier 3.” There were also four fourth-tier teams with a “puncher’s chance” at upending the Lakers: the Jazz, Mavericks, Nets, and Nuggets.
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