- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 25, 2009

They all made noise in the offseason, the elite squads of the league seemingly playing a five-way game of one-upmanship and battling to ensure they remain atop the NBA’s heap and position themselves for serious title runs.

In a climate where many teams are trying to cut payroll and create salary cap room for the coveted big-name free agent class of 2010, the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs all threw frugality to the wind.

After signing Ron Artest and re-signing Lamar Odom, the Lakers enter the season with the league’s highest payroll at $91.4 million - nearly $20 million over the league’s luxury tax threshold.

The Celtics have $84 million committed to player salaries this season, Orlando $80.5 million. Cleveland, determined not to get upset in the conference finals by Orlando again, added Shaquille O’Neal and his $20 million contract, and five more signings, increasing its payroll to $79.9 million. San Antonio added eight new players and has $79.3 million committed to salaries.

The spending comes as a result of the teams’ desperation to ensure their windows of opportunity do not slam shut and leave them on the outside looking in. In some cases, the window is open for just two to three years because of age and free agency. Others must win this season or else they could experience major changes next summer.

Of all the teams, the Lakers - having only lost Trevor Ariza from their championship squad - were probably in the least dire of situations with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum still under contract for at least the next two years. Simply re-signing Odom would have kept them in the hunt. By adding Artest, a veteran scorer and lockdown defender, they likely will be better than last season… if the at-times volatile Artest remains focused.

“Who is going to step up and challenge the defending champs, the Los Angeles Lakers? The rich get richer. You basically have the same team with the addition of a former defensive player of the year in Ron Artest, ” former NBA star and current TNT analyst Reggie Miller said. “If Ron Artest plays like Ron Artest. That’s the only difference. …

“Ron doesn’t have to do a lot on this team, and I hope he recognizes that he’s not the second or third option on this team offensively. If he recognizes that… the Lakers will win the championship.”

Orlando, which took the league by surprise last season when it upset Boston and Cleveland to reach the finals, is still a relatively young team. The Magic made their moves to ensure they continue progressing.

But teams such as Cleveland, Boston and San Antonio faced more desperate situations. The question of whether LeBron James would leave Cleveland for New York or New Jersey via free agency loomed large two years ago - even though James wasn’t due to hit the open market until 2010. Believing the best chance of hanging onto the league MVP is to give him a championship-caliber supporting cast, general manager Danny Ferry added O’Neal to give the Cavaliers a post presence and four rings’ worth of experience.

“[James] is in a good spot this year in that he’s in the last year of a contract and Shaq’s motivation to say that he’s won three championships with Kobe Bryant, one with Dwyane Wade and now one with LeBron,” former coach Doug Collins said. “I think that Shaq will help on their front line. They really got hammered inside last year, and they didn’t have any answers for Dwight Howard. He’ll also take some of the pressure off of [James] in dealing with the media all the time.”

Boston, on the other hand, saw its repeat bid fall short after Kevin Garnett went down with a season-ending knee injury. Enter Rasheed Wallace and Shelden Williams. But with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Garnett and Wallace all over age 32, and with Allen due to become a free agent in the summer, this could be the group’s last real shot at winning a championship.

The same applies to aging San Antonio. The Spurs are led by soon-to-be 33-year-old Tim Duncan, who hobbled down the stretch of last season, and 32-year-old Manu Ginobili, who missed all of last year’s postseason. Jefferson gives the Spurs another scoring threat and an insurance policy for Ginobili, and newly acquired Antonio McDyess and Theo Ratliff should help keep Duncan fresh for what they hope is another championship run or two.

“I’ve only got a couple years left in me,” Duncan recently told ESPN. “The history of basketball says that more than anything else. … The window for me is closing.”

Can big spending jam the window open a bit longer for these teams? They’ll find out next spring.



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