While Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers head into the offseason holding their second successive NBA championship, everyone else will spend the next few weeks plotting ways to close the gap.
The draft is Thursday, and then it’s only another week after that until the most anticipated free-agency period ever opens on July 1, when Miami will kick off its quest to retain Dwyane Wade and get LeBron James or Chris Bosh to join him.
What would Kobe think about going for three in a row against a team like that?
“I don’t want to think about that,” Bryant said. “Those guys, I’ve seen those guys up close and personal. I don’t want to think about playing against both of them at the same time.”
Chicago and New York also dream of a team with multiple superstars, and it might take something like that to stop the Lakers.
Bryant, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, is still near the top of his game, and Pau Gasol appears to be getting better every year.
But they don’t know yet who will be coaching them. Phil Jackson, who won his 11th title, will take some time before deciding if he will return. He could retire if he’s not satisfied with a likely pay cut, or perhaps draw an offer from somewhere else – perhaps to coach James in Cleveland? – if he wanted to stay on the sideline.
The runner-up Boston Celtics, meanwhile, are preparing to be broken apart.
Doc Rivers isn’t sure of his future, and even if he does return he knows it will be to a different locker room.
“Guys are going to not be there, so that was tough for me,” Rivers said.
The Celtics haven’t been together that long, with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett acquired in separate trades in the summer of 2007, joining Paul Pierce to form the core of a team that made two Finals in three years.
Their turnaround from laughingstock to powerhouse gives hope to teams hoping for a quick fix this summer, leapfrogging the slow process of building through the draft by acquiring veterans who are ready to compete for a championship now.
At least nine teams could be $10 million or more under the salary cap, able to sign or trade for the types of players who could make them immediate threats to the Lakers.
And the names potentially available range from Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki to Joe Johnson and Allen.
Even a perennial loser such as Washington, likely to take John Wall with the No. 1 pick and able to afford a maximum salary player, could find itself back in the postseason next year.