* * *
Will the Lakers’ path to The Finals in 2021 be easier or harder than in 2020?
* * *
Steve Aschburner: Harder. This league is all about continuous improvement, unless it happens to be about injury. That’s the mode Golden State was in this season, gone ghost by the injuries to Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. The Warriors will be healed, fresh and toting a high Draft pick with instant aspirations to reclaim their conference dominance. Denver wants nothing less than a Finals trip in 2021, Dallas might have been the team upsetting the Clippers if not for Kristaps Porzingis’ injury, and there always are expectations in Houston, Utah and Portland. Meanwhile, LeBron James will be a year old -- wait, that’s meaningless now. But his and the Lakers’ rivals will be more formidable.
Shaun Powell: It'll be harder. Understand that every title contender from this past year will be just as good if not better next season. And now you add the healthy Warriors and Nets and it's a crowded field. The Lakers could loom as greater threats the following year, especially if Giannis Antetokounmpo or another A-list free agent signs up to help LeBron go out in style.
John Schuhmann: More difficult. The Lakers certainly earned that title, but the West should be stronger next season with the return of the Warriors and continued growth from teams like Denver, Dallas and even Phoenix. And with some lessons learned and improved chemistry, the LA Clippers should be more than just an in-theory championship contender next season.
Sekou Smith: Harder, but for reasons that are beyond the Lakers' control. The pack in the Western Conference is always chasing the top dog and it will be no different in 2020-21. There's plenty of competition gearing up for a shot at knocking the Lakers off their championship perch, starting with whatever team rises from the ashes that are the Clippers. Plus, there's still Denver, Dallas, Utah, Houston, Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Phoenix and anyone else hoping to catch LeBron on the other side of 35. The Lakers' championship window is open, though ... as long as LeBron and AD stay as healthy and engaged as they were this time around.
Michael C. Wright: Harder, for sure. You forget about them because we didn’t see them in the bubble, but the Golden State Warriors haven’t gone anywhere (and they’ve got the No. 2 pick in the upcoming Draft). Then, you’ve got the Clippers and the Rockets, which need to figure out what they’re going to do moving forward as the championship window for James Harden and Russell Westbrook is quickly closing. Dallas is emerging as a threat in the West with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, and we all saw how formidable Denver will be for years to come with two superstars in Murray and Nikola Jokic. It’s unfortunate Oklahoma City lost coach Billy Donovan to Chicago, but the young Thunder are on the come-up, too. Utah and Portland should also be threats next season. So, the West definitely hasn’t gotten any easier.