(Sports Network) - The Los Angeles Lakers were just two wins away from capturing the NBA championship last June and still possess the game's most dominant player in Kobe Bryant.
So, obviously the Lakers are a legitimate title contender and it will be up to Phil Jackson to do the necessary tweaking and figure out how to get the Lakers back to the top of the NBA mountain.
When we last saw Kobe and Company, they were struggling to rebound with the Boston Celtics and had a very difficult time with pick-and-roll defense.
Los Angeles' starting frontline during the NBA Finals of Lamar Odom, Vladimir Radmanovic and Pau Gasol are all back and will be supplemented by the return of a healthy Andrew Bynum, who is returning after spending the offseason rehabbing from the dislocated kneecap suffered in January.
At just 20-years old, the 7-foot, 285-pound Bynum may be the key to putting the Lakers over the top. The team's best pure rebounder and shot blocker, Bynum averaged 13.1 points and 10.2 rebounds in the 35 games he played before the injury.
2007-08 Results: 57-25, lost to Boston in the NBA Finals.
ADDITIONS: Josh Powell (F) - Free Agent; Sun Yue (G) - 2007 second-round draft pick.
The top sports headlines of the day
SUBTRACTIONS: Ronny Turiaf (F) - Signed with Golden State; Ira Newble (G/F) - Free Agent.
RE-SIGNINGS: Sasha Vujacic (G).
2008 DRAFT PICKS: 2. (58) Joe Crawford (G, Kentucky).
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Derek Fisher SG- Kobe Bryant SF- Lamar Odom PF- Pau Gasol C- Andrew Bynum
KEY RESERVES: Trevor Ariza (F); Jordan Farmar (G); DJ MBenga (C); Chris Mihm (C); Josh Powell (F/C); Vladimir Radmanovic (F); Sasha Vujacic (G); Luke Walton (F)
FRONTCOURT: Bynum is a beast and will be very difficult to contain once he learns the ins-and-out of NBA basketball. It's always tough measuring the maturity level of a 20-year-old but if Bynum can accept his role and do the dirty work, the Lakers will be a very difficult team to beat.
LA became one of the elite teams in the league when it pulled off one of the big trades of the 2007-08 campaign, acquiring the seven-foot Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for center Kwame Brown, guard Javaris Crittenton, guard Aaron McKie, the draft rights to Marc Gasol and first round picks in 2008 and 2010.
Gasol fit in great as a second option to Bryant and worked very well with and the rest of his teammates but didn't show the toughness on the glass or the defensive end in the Finals. That's where Bynum comes in. If Gasol can just concentrate on offense, look out, but Bynum needs to learn to play with Gasol, who likely will take away a number of his shot attempts.
When Odom is your third offensive option, you have a heck of a basketball team. One of the most skilled passing big men in the league, Odom can beat you in a multitude of ways but frustrates Jackson with a spotty work ethic.
Ever the psychologist, Jackson challenged Odom in the preseason, openly talking about giving his starting spot to Trevor Ariza or Radmanovic if the veteran didn't show consistent intensity.
"(Odom's) starting to get a feel for it," Jackson said during the preseason. "He's starting to play basketball. He looks like he's playing really well now. His timing is there, his reaction is there, his conditioning is getting better. All those things."
BACKCOURT: Bryant, the reigning NBA MVP and 10-time All-Star, led the Lakers in scoring (28.3 ppg) and assists (5.4 apg) last season and spent his offseason making life miserable for international competition as a member of the U.S. Senior Men's National Basketball Team.
A player without a weakness, Bryant is back to try and prove he can go all the way without Shaquille O'Neal. About all an opposing coach can do to try and contain Bryant is hope the jumper is not falling and give him space. When things are all clicking for Kobe, he's one of the best 10 players in NBA history and the best since Michael Jordan.
Derek Fisher is a steady veteran at the point and the team's captain. His job is to stand on the weak side and stroke the standstill jumper. Fisher doesn't have the quickness to penetrate and dish so Bryant spends a lot of time handling the basketball.
BENCH: Jackson has a ton of bodies to throw at you and try to wear you down. Radmanovic probably will return to the bench as the resident sharp shooter after the "Zen Master" is done playing games with Odom, while Ariza, Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton use their athleticism to push the action at both ends.
"We play really well with (Radmanovic) out there on the floor," Jackson said. "As long as you play well, coaches are addicted to that kind of stuff."
Ariza has a chance to be a top-tier defender and give Bryant a break from having to check the opposition's best perimeter player.
Farmar is the captain of the second unit and can push the basketball but needs to improve his jumper, while Walton is a Jackson favorite thanks to his passing ability and steadiness on the floor.
Meanwhile, Sasha Vujacic, who re-signed a three-year deal for $15 million, in the offseason, often finishes games thanks to his shooting ability and steady defense.
A healthy Bynum added to a nucleus that was already a Finals team makes LA the favorite to repeat as the top team in the West.
The Lakers may be able to make a run at 60 wins and a rematch with the Celtics may be inevitable although Jackson recognizes many potholes rest along the way.
"It's so hard to come back to that same level," Jackson said during a preseason conference call. "Having been through a number of these situations and seasons, only one time did a repeat team come back in the championship. That was Utah and the Bulls back in 96-97 and 97-98. And before that Seattle and Washington came back in the late 70s. It's really ironic in history, with 30 teams, for it to be the same two teams in the finals, but we hope we're the ones that are there. That's for sure."