LeBron James barely had time to put down his latest trophy before having to start defending it.
It was an extremely short offseason for the Los Angeles Lakers, who won their 17th NBA championship on Oct. 11. That didn’t leave much time for rest and relaxation before getting back to work in advance of their Dec. 22 season opener.
But it was long enough to load up for a run at a repeat.
Besides signing James and fellow superstar Anthony Davis to contract extensions, the Lakers added Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder, who finished 1-2 last season in voting for the Sixth Man Award. Former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol now mans the middle and Wesley Matthews will be counted on to knock down the open shots created by James, who led the league last season in assists.
That has the Lakers looking like the favorites to remain the best in the West and perhaps the whole NBA, which would break a tie with Boston to make them the winningest franchise in league history. James won back-to-back titles in Miami and understands the difficulty in trying to stay on top.
“I guess the bull’s-eye just becomes even greater, even if that’s even possible,” said James, beginning his 18th season. “For me personally, the bull’s-eye has always been on my back, or my front, since I entered the league and then you add in the Laker name on top of that. The Lakers franchise, the bull’s-eye has been on this franchise for a long time as well.
“So understanding that everyone’s going to come at us, everyone’s going to try to take away from us defending our title. But for me personally, last year we won the ring, we won a title and this year is a new challenge.”
A look at the West, in predicted order of regular-season finish:
1. Los Angeles Lakers — Once LeBron James had his grip on the Eastern Conference title in 2011, he held onto it for eight years, so it won’t be easy for any West team to snatch it from him.
2. Denver — The Nikoka Jokic-Jamal Murray combination could be the envy of many teams for years.
3. Los Angeles Clippers — Kawhi Leonard, Paul George will have to shake off an ugly ending to last season when they start up again under new coach Tyronn Lue.
4. Portland — Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum might finally have the health and talent in their frontcourt to allow the Trail Blazers to play like they did in the bubble all season.
5. Utah — The Jazz have shooting outside, Rudy Gobert inside, and Donovan Mitchell to do it all on nights when those things aren’t good enough.
6. Phoenix — Undefeated run in the bubble followed by the acquisition of Chris Paul has the Suns thinking big.
7. Dallas — Luka Doncic might very well win the MVP award, but Kristaps Porzingis needs to stay healthy to be in the lineup with him for the Mavericks to win much more than that.
8. Houston — Could finish much higher — or lower — depending on what happens with the James Harden situation that lingers over coach Stephen Silas’ first season.
IN THE MIX
9. New Orleans — The Pelicans have Zion Williamson from the start of the season this time as they begin play under new coach Stan Van Gundy.
10. Golden State — Stephen Curry will try to shoot the Warriors back into the playoffs, but it won’t be easy with Klay Thompson set to miss a second consecutive season with an injury.
11. Memphis — Rookie of the Year Ja Morant and the Grizzlies won’t sneak up on anyone like they did last season in a surprising run that nearly netted them a playoff spot.
FACING LONG ODDS
12. Sacramento — De’Aaron Fox will have the Kings playing fast and fun, but it takes a little more than that to contend in the West.
13. Minnesota — Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell are proven players, but it might take No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards time to make an NBA impact with such little preparation time.
14. San Antonio — Seems strange starting any season without slotting San Antonio into a playoff spot, but Gregg Popovich’s Spurs are no longer the surest thing in the NBA.
15. Oklahoma City — The Thunder are stocked with future draft picks, but that’s not going to do them any good on the court now.
WHAT TO KNOW
L.A.’S OTHER TEAM
The Clippers’ collapse in the bubble, when they blew a 3-1 lead against Denver in the Western Conference finals, cost them a showdown with the Lakers and coach Doc Rivers his job. Tyronn Lue will now try to lead them to the NBA Finals spot that’s remained out of reach for the franchise.
The Rockets have the NBA’s longest current streak of playoff appearances at eight years, all since James Harden arrived for the 2012-13 season. But with Harden potentially on his way out amid reports he wants to be traded, Houston goes into the season as an unknown.
Phoenix hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010, when it lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. The Suns made a spirited run at ending that by going 8-0 in the seeding games at Walt Disney World and come back now with an All-Star backcourt after trading for Chris Paul to play alongside Devin Booker. who averaged 26.6 points last season.
Five straight NBA Finals appearances were followed by the worst record in the NBA as the Warriors tumbled to the bottom of basketball when Klay Thompson missed the season and Stephen Curry missed nearly all of it. Curry will try to shoot Golden State back into the postseason, still without his backcourt mate but with some intriguing pieces that include Andrew Wiggins, newcomer Kelly Oubre Jr. and No. 2 pick James Wiseman.
Luka Doncic led the NBA with 17 triple-doubles last season to pace a potent Dallas offense. But the Mavericks had to finish the playoffs without an injured Kristaps Porzingis and start this season the same way, so the point guard might have to be even better than last season to get them through the early portion of their schedule.