Finals over, NBA opens potential offseason of change

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by Brian Mahoney
Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP)—New coaches for the NBA’s winningest franchises. New superstars for some of the teams chasing them.

Anything is possible in an offseason that could reshape the league, and it officially started after the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Boston Celtics 83-79 June 18 in Game 7 of the NBA finals to win their second straight championship.

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CELEBRATION BEGINS—Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant reacts as Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers looks on as time runs out in Game 7 of the NBA basketball finals, June 17, in Los Angeles.

While Kobe Bryant and the Lakers headed off to more celebrations—and Ron Artest’s promised to be a wild one—everyone else will spend the next few weeks plotting ways to close the gap.

The draft is June 24, 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 get LeBron James or Chris Bosh to play with Dwyane Wade.

What would you think about going for three in a row against a team like that, Kobe?

“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, the 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 walk away and 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.

A chance for yet another three-peat—he’s already done it three times—could keep him in Los Angeles.

Down the hall, the Celtics were 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.

“We’re not going to be the same team next year,” Rivers said. “Guys are going to not be there, so that was tough for me.”

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 the teams hoping for the 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 while so much talk—some of it from the players themselves—is on the idea of a James-Wade type of pairing, it might not even take that much to topple the champs.

Take a team like Oklahoma City. With scoring champion Kevin Durant atop a young core that pushed the Lakers to six tough games in the first round, the Thunder could be just one player away and have the flexibility to deal for him.

“There’s going to be a balance of power that goes along with the decisions that are made,” Hall of Famer Julius Erving said. “If you end up with LeBron and Dwyane Wade on the same team, and it’s a Western Conference team, bye Eastern Conference.”

That’s not happening, but with so many other quality names potentially available, from Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki to Joe Johnson and Allen, there are plenty of other options out there.

“There’s going to be a power shift,” Erving said, “and now you’ve got all these guys who are free to go.”

Even a loser like Washington, likely to take John Wall with the No. 1 pick and able to afford a maximum salary player, can find itself back in the postseason next year.

Of course, the Lakers won’t just sit still. They’ve always been willing to spend, and they gave Bryant and Gasol contract extensions this season after opening the checkbook to keep Lamar Odom and sign Ron Artest last summer. All they have to do now is retain a coach. Otherwise, they have enough pieces in place for another championship team.

By the time they raise their banner, someone might have built a better one.

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