HOOPSWORLD: What a difference a year makes. At this point last season, the Los Angeles Lakers were contemplating trade offers for star guard Kobe Bryant. Now they’re arguably the favorite to come out of the Western Conference . . .
Of course 14 other teams will challenge them over the course of the 82-game regular season schedule – and the three rounds of the conference playoffs. Of the 14, five stand out as serious threats:
1) Portland Trail Blazers – The Blazers weren’t a playoff team last year but they seriously have their eyes on the eighth playoff spot (at a minimum). Portland could be this year’s New Orleans Hornets – the young team that finally puts it together. If they can finally stay healthy, the Blazers have a scary roster and a knack for giving the Lakers a very hard time – especially in Portland.
Playing against guards Derek Fisher, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Bryant – the Blazers have Brandon Roy, Steve Blake (always a problem for the Lakers) and rookies Jerry Bayless and Rudy Fernandez. To match up with LA’s front court of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, Portland offers Greg Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge and either Martell Webster or Travis Outlaw. Channing Frye’s ability to face up and shoot and Joel Przybilla’s physicality give Coach Nate McMillan a pair of very different weapons off the bench.
If the Lakers do indeed win the West and draw the Blazers in the first round, that’s going to be an epic series that could derail LA’s title hopes early in the game . . .