For two seasons or more now, the buzz around the NBA has been that LeBron James is going to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA Championship.  There was good reason for this buzz.  He carried a downright crummy team to an NBA Finals appearance in 2007.  He had shown himself to be a dominating force both in regular season and playoff games.  He displayed a mix of talent and unselfishness that is rare in the world of basketball.

And yet while he projected an aura of invincibility… reality never caught up to that perception.  His imposing physical stature and tremendous athletic gifts made him seem at times like a man among boys.  LeBron James was so clearly great so quickly, that it seems to have taken a handful of years for observers to really figure out where he stands on the NBA landscape.

One thing is clear now as we stand in the shattered remains of Cleveland’s 2010 title hopes.  The Cavs made change after change to appease their young superstar and entice him to stay.  They resigned players like Drew Gooden and Daniel Gibson.  They added free agents like Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker.  They traded for known entities like Shaq, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison.  What did it get them in the end?  Certainly no satisfaction.  Instead they’re left standing on the precipice, wondering what else they could have done to cement this team into a championship winning group.

While I can’t remember a team that was supposed to be so great failing quite this way, I can remember a team constructed in a similar fashion that in the end failed just as badly.  I’m talking about the Toronto Raptors.  Back at the beginning of this decade the Raptors had one of the leagues premiere young players in Vince Carter.  He was one of the most popular basketball players on the planet, known for his creative and ferocious dunks.  He carried what was quite frankly a pretty ordinary Raptors club to the seventh game of the second round against Philadelphia, where they lost when he missed a shot at the buzzer.  Carter was just 24 then, and looked to have a bright future ahead of him in Toronto.

Following the season, Vince signed a huge contract extension with the club worth over 90 million dollars.  He was told by management that the team was going to spend money and keep their good players together.  The end result of this was outrageous contracts for Antonio Davis, Alvin Williams, Chris Childs, Jerome Williams, Michael Stewart and other such NBA studs.  After two-plus disappointing seasons with the same nucleus, Vince voiced his frustration and disappointment about the team built around him.  He was ultimately traded to the New Jersey Nets in 2004.

Conveniently forgotten during Carter’s exodus was that he was the one demanding a competitive roster in the first place.  His demands for a competitive team placed the Raptors in the position of having to put a lot of money into questionable assets.  Even with Vince Carter on the roster, Toronto was not a free agent hot spot.  They felt that they had to shell out the cash needed to keep their existing core intact, and in the end that cost them long-term flexibility and made it impossible to build a true contender around Carter.  Cleveland seems to have reached a similar place with LeBron.  He signed that three-year extension a few years back with the intent on winning a title in Cleveland.  The Cavs tried to appease him by bringing in a variety of veterans and signing big extensions with the likes of Anderson Varejao and Booby Gibson.

They have now amassed a collection of veterans with clear limitations, and yet at the same time have removed almost all flexibility from their roster.  They seem to have finally realized that during this season when they refused to send J.J. Hickson out of town to bring in more high-priced talent.   Unfortunately for Cleveland fans, they may have realized it too late.  The Cavs are financially tapped out, unless they can get a team to take Jamison or Williams off their hands.  They gave up their #1 pick in the Jamison trade.  The ways for them to improve for 2010-2011 are extremely limited.  It would appear to be trade or bust, and that’s simply going to lead to them taking on contracts that are just as bad as the ones they already have, or perhaps even worse.  I’d love to be in the room to hear Danny Ferry pitch the Cavs to LeBron come July 1st, because on the surface it would seem that their biggest addition this offseason will be the subtraction of Shaq and Z.

Perhaps the Cavs have learned their lesson.  They are clearly at their best as a running team with athletes and shooters and defenders on the floor.  Now the question for the Cavs is how can they build that kind of team with no cap space, and a limited window of opportunity before LeBron can breeze right out of town.  At least in Toronto the fans had already long turned on Vince before he was traded to New Jersey for a ham sandwich.  The mistakes the Cavs have made could cost them Ohio’s most beloved sports hero since Jim Brown.

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.