National Basketball Association

Nets, Western powers lining up to take crown from LeBron James, Lakers

April 11

When you’re the king of the hill, everyone wants a shot at knocking you off.

And when you’re a superstar like LeBron James, leading a franchise like the Los Angeles Lakers, the intensity is ratcheted up even more.

Adding to this discussion is the fact that the Lakers have shown some vulnerability since James joined fellow superstar Anthony Davis on the sideline. James was hurt 11 minutes into a March 20 game against the Atlanta Hawks. The Lakers were on a four-game winning streak at the time before proceeding to not only lose to Atlanta but to drop four straight contests.

They were 4-7 with both of their franchise pillars out and had dropped from second to fifth in the Western Conference standings.

But then something interesting happened on Saturday night: The Lakers went and throttled the Eastern Conference bullies known as the Brooklyn Nets, winning 126-101 in the Nets' own building. And they did it with two newcomers leading the way.

Andre Drummond owned the paint and dominated Brooklyn newcomer LaMarcus Aldridge, scoring 20 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and basically doing whatever he wanted for the 22 minutes he was on the floor. And Ben McLemore chipped in 17 points while making five of his 10 3-point attempts.

The whole thing had LeBron and Davis celebrating from the bench and suddenly changed the narrative that the championship crown was there for the taking. Maybe it wouldn't be so easy after all.

It's hard to read too much into one game, however, especially a game in which Nets star Kyrie Irving was ejected after 21 minutes for a run-in with L.A.'s Dennis Schroder. And even with that one victory the Lakers still sit in fifth place in the West. 

But the question is, can anyone knock them from their championship perch? Let's take a look at the main challengers, starting with those in the Western Conference.

The Denver Nuggets have been hot since dealing for Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline, winning all seven of their games. They also have a top MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic and don’t forget that Denver was a Western Conference finalist last year, losing to the Lakers in five games.

The Phoenix Suns have been quietly dominant this season and have a steady hand in Chris Paul to lead young studs Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker. They are currently in second place in the West.

Ahead of the Suns is a team that has been perhaps even quieter in its dominance – the Utah Jazz. The Jazz have a pair of All-Stars in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, but it’s the sheer breadth of their talent that makes them so tough, as they feature six players who score in double figures.

And don’t forget the third-place Clippers, who have arguably the best wing combination in the league in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and are the only squad in the NBA shooting over 40% from 3-point range as a team.

The Clippers’ postseason struggles have been well-documented, but they hope that their trade deadline pickup of Rajon Rondo provides that little bit of the postseason magic they’ve been missing.

Obviously, it’s difficult to compare the current Lakers roster with their Western counterparts, and that roster should return to strength in the coming weeks.

Davis is expected to return soon, possibly when the Lakers come home from their current five-game road trip. And it’s been reported that James could be back by the start of May.

As such, James signaled a not-so-subtle warning to the rest of the league just a day ago.

"You know LeBron’s got a degree in atmospheric science and meteorology!" Shannon Sharpe proclaimed on "Undisputed." "Time to board up, because when these two storms hit, it won’t be safe to be outside."

But even if simply getting healthy will be enough to drive the Lakers through the Western Conference, you have to wonder if they’ll be ready to handle a Nets squad that should be at full strength in the playoffs, unlike it was on Saturday night.

The Nets are a massive chemistry experiment, a collection of superstars both past and present. Brooklyn has not really had a chance to see if its glitzy trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Irving will jell on the court, as injuries have limited their time together to only seven games so far.

But once they do, they could form a team dominant enough to dethrone the Lakers.

"If a thunderstorm is coming, get ready," Chris Broussard said on "First Things First." "Here’s the problem though: It’s going to take a tornado to beat Brooklyn. … LeBron knows it as well as anybody. That’s the problem with the whole league."

Of course, LeBron is no stranger to difficult challenges, as Colin Cowherd pointed out on "The Herd."

"The Lakers were a complete mess when LeBron arrived," he said. "The roster was full of young, immature, skinny kids who are all gone except (Kyle) Kuzma. The Buss family, Jeanie and Jim, were not getting along. The front office was a mess, they couldn’t even get meetings with free agents."

Despite all of that, the Lakers won a championship in James’ third year in Los Angeles, which, according to Cowherd, is a testament to his greatness.

Once healthy, will the Lakers vanquish whoever gets in their way? Or will a team stop them this time around?

There will be plenty of talented teams eager to step up and show that they can do just that. But as Saturday night's win over the Nets showed, the Lakers aren't just going to hand over their crown.

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