With the decidedly uncompetitive NBA Finals in the books and the Los Angeles Lakers on top of the basketball world, we’re left to examine how the basketball world will react to the final results of the 2008-2009 season.  Some of the most pivotal reactions will come from those involved in the final series.  Questions must be answered.

1.  Did Kobe finally exorcise those demons that have haunted him since L.A. became “his” team?

We may not truly know until a year from now, but the early returns are promising.  He has appeared much more relaxed and content following the Lakers victory than any time I can remember including their previous Championships.  His acknowledgement of the constant doubts of him winning “without Shaq” was a big step for him in my opinion.  Giving a voice to that always-discussed subject that he acknowledged as “annoying” and illustrating that he is now beyond it can only help him grow. 

After months and years of jokes about being the best second fiddle in NBA history, Bryant has captured a fourth NBA Championship as the undisputed best player on his team.  Not only that but he was the best player in the playoffs.  He willed the Lakers to several victories when in past years the team (including Kobe himself) would have been more likely to fold up, implode or quit on each other.

Much as we saw the remaking of Kevin Garnett’s image from Playoff Bust to Fearless Leader, expect that Kobe Bryant will ascend to the pantheon placing him with the greatest of the greats.  His accomplishments can no longer be marred by suggesting he couldn’t lead a team to victory.  He’s done that now.

2.  Will the Lakers be back next year (and beyond)?

Barring a major exodus via free agency (unlikely) or the rise of a new West power (possible), yes.  The Lakers have to be the favorite in the Western Conference heading into the offseason.  They’re a deep and talented team and most of their talent is young.   Kobe and Derek Fisher are the only guys on the entire roster who are over 30.  That’s pretty astonishing.  Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown are 23.  Andrew Bynum is 21.  Jordan Farmar is 22.  Lamar Odom is 29 and Pau Gasol is 28.  Even their depth guys like Luke Walton (28) and Sasha Vujacic (25) have plenty of miles left on their bodies.  That’s a big thing in a league where all it takes is one guy to break down to end your season.  Just ask Boston.  Or Houston.  Or New Orleans. 

The Lakers have a young core built around Kobe Bryant, and provided they can satisfy everyone this summer I would expect them to stay together through the next two or three seasons.  They will have some dancing to do in the free agent period though.  Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown and Trevor Ariza are free agents. All are key cogs in this Laker machine.  Without any of them the Lakers would not have the depth and athleticism and skill they displayed nightly this season.  Of course the Buss family has not had a problem paying the luxury tax in the past.  Especially if the results are of Championship caliber.  I would expect them to save some money dumping Adam Morrison, unless the Zen Master feels he can coax something out of the former NCAA star.

This is where that big extension for Bynum hurts.  Bynum was a bit player in this title run, but will see his salary climb from 2.77 million to 12.5 million.  That raise eats up almost all of Odom’s entire salary for this season.  The Lakers should have no trouble retaining the versatile wingman however.  He’s admitted that he wants to stay in Los Angeles and can’t see himself playing elsewhere.  That makes it kind of hard to drum up interest away from the beaches.  Ariza and Brown will be the true tests.  Are the Lakers willing to pay for guys who are role players?  They have in the past (Walton and Vujacic are examples) and that burned them in recent years.  This time though it appears to be the smart move.  Athletic wing guys who can play defense are a must in the NBA.

3.  Where Does Orlando Go From Here?

Good question, that.  The Magic could go in a few different directions.  Luckily for Magic fans their ownership has already stated that they will in fact pay the luxury tax to keep Hedo Turkoglu.  That’s a key for them because in crunch time the Turk was clearly their most important player.  They will have to pay the tax, as they were already over the threshold before Turkoglu opted out of the last year of his old contract.

They’ve got Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard combining to earn over 33 million next season.  They’ve got Jameer Nelson and Mickael Pietrus for 11 million on top of that.  Throw in key role players like Courtney Lee and JJ Reddick and that six guys that we know will be back and around 48 million payed to them.  Turk will earn at least 10 million and probably closer to 12 for his trouble.  In a better economic climate he could probably get more, but such is life.  That would put Orlando in the 58-60 million range with 7 guys under contract.

Now, those aren’t the only Magic players under contract for next season.  Orlando also has Tony Battie (6.2 million), Rafer Alston (5.25 million) and Anthony Johnson (2.1 million) on the books through next season.  However, I would say it’s a good bet that Orlando will look to move at least one of those guys as an expiring contract.  The Lakers made it pretty clear in the Finals that Orlando has trouble scoring consistently inside.  They will also have to address the role of Alston if he doesn’t get moved, as Rafer has never been particularly quiet about coming off the bench.  He feels he’s a starter and will let anyone know it, as evidenced by his speaking out during the playoffs.  Who’s going to want Alston is another question entirely, but his expiring contract and solid NBA player status will make him desirable to some.  Battie and his 6.2 million dollar contract (along with solid interior defensive reputation) could see him moved.  Despite Orlando’s lack of size inside he didn’t play much in any series through the playoffs.

Can Orlando upgrade their rotation with those kind of chips to deal?  Maybe.  Dollars are tight in the league so they could probably add a good weapon to their bench this way.  That would definitely help them going into next season.  They could use a physical presence like a Drew Gooden or a Chris Wilcox inside, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them chase a guy like Mehmet Okur if he exercises his opt-out clause.

4.  Can Dwight Howard Raise His Game?

No matter what the Magic do this summer, Dwight Howard will be the biggest factor in what Orlando accomplishes in 2009-2010.  We’ve all heard about how he’s been working with Patrick Ewing.  Well… Patrick Ewing probably isn’t the greatest guy to teach him how to use his dominant athletic ability.  While “Superman” had some dominant performances in the playoffs he was clearly befuddled by the Lakers defense.  His lack of a post game was exposed to a new degree.  You can’t question his ability to own the glass or block shots, but he didn’t make more than 5 field goals in any Finals game.  For a guy who struggles a lot at the charity stripe that is an issue.

Howard acknowledged after the loss that he has work to do this summer.  The question will be whether the work he does is on the right things.  Yes, shooting free throws is important, but Howard has already said that he doesn’t have trouble making them in practice or in shoot-arounds.  The real focus for Howard this summer needs to be developing his footwork and his instincts in the post.  He has the size, speed and power to be a dominant low-post scorer.  He just doesn’t know how to get from point A to point B consistently yet.  If he’s in need of some tips in this area he’d be better served calling up Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson.  Both of those guys were athletically superior big men who can probably help Howard out honing his athletic gifts into an unstoppable force.

The fact remains that this guy could be the most unstoppable force in the league, if harnessed properly.  The Magic came up three wins short of an NBA Championship, with Howard operating at about 33% offensive capacity in my opinion.  If he gets it figured out even a little bit, look out NBA.

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