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The NBA Champs Look More Dangerous Than Ever

Think back to last summer, when the teams that had just played for an NBA title were hit with one bombshell move after another in free agency.

The first bolt of lightning struck instantly, when two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant said he’d be leaving the runner-up Golden State Warriors to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. The second came days later: Kawhi Leonard, who had just led the Toronto Raptors to a championship, was heading to the Clippers and would be joined by Paul George, who had requested a trade there.

Those big moves of last season make what we saw this past weekend from the Los Angeles Lakers so impressive. At a time when title contenders often have to play defense to prevent their star talent from being poached, the reigning champions went out and almost certainly made themselves better.

Sure, it helps that they never faced an actual threat of losing free agent Anthony Davis, who figures to sign a new deal to stay in Los Angeles soon enough. But heading to a year that will be plenty strange because of the brisk turnaround and truncated schedule, it’s hard to imagine how the club could have done any better to widen its margin for error as it goes for the repeat.

Before free agency even opened, general manager Rob Pelinka made a deal for Oklahoma City point guard Dennis Schröder, trading a first-round pick and swingman Danny Green to land him. The move gave Los Angeles a far younger, more scoring-oriented lead ball-handler than it previously had in Rajon Rondo, which should benefit the club in at least two ways. First, the Lakers should be able to lean on the 27-year-old — who is coming off a much longer break than the rest of the Lakers had — more than it would have been able to with Rondo, who struggled with injuries last season. (Understandably, there’s been talk that LeBron James, who turns 36 in December, may want or need more than a two-month break.) Second, Schröder gives the Lakers a better threat to pair with Davis during James’s sub outs — a much-needed boost, given that the team was underwater by 3 points per 100 possessions last year with Davis on the court but James on the sideline.

Beyond setting themselves up to be able to rest James more effectively, Los Angeles also brought in reinforcements that should make life a bit easier for Davis in the post: Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell and former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol.

When that deal was announced — surprising many, given that Harrell played for the rival Clippers — it would have been understandable to wonder just how much of an upgrade Harrell was from Dwight Howard, who could have been retained at a veteran-minimum salary. Yes, Harrell is far younger and is a more active offensive player than Howard at this point. But Harrell looked like a sieve on D in the playoffs, with the Clips hemorrhaging 116.3 points per 100 possessions with him (versus giving up just 103.8 with Ivica Zubac).

Whatever concerns might exist about Harrell, though, should largely evaporate once you realize Gasol will be part of the roster, too. The Lakers won’t necessarily have to use Harrell as a center if they don’t want to — both Gasol and Davis can serve as rim protectors while playing alongside him. And because those two are both good perimeter-shooting bigs, Harrell can serve as the roll man while either Davis or Gasol spread out to the wing to keep defenses honest and confused. (Another key point: While Davis has somehow never suffered an injury that held him out for considerable time, he’s had more close calls than just about anyone. Having both Harrell and Gasol on hand gives the team a good amount of depth at the position, even though Gasol is older and Harrell struggles to defend the rim.)

None of this takes into account the other massive moves the Lakers made. While Los Angeles lost Green in the deal for Schröder, it did pick up another solid veteran wing in Wesley Matthews, who opted to walk away from Milwaukee. The Lakers also managed to keep Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who came up huge in the Finals.

The moves themselves certainly make Los Angeles a solid bet to repeat, even before you look at the strange state of the Western Conference. The Suns will generate playoff hype now with Chris Paul playing alongside Devin Booker, and the offense-heavy Blazers may be closer to contending with their improved lineup on defense. But Klay Thompson suffered another serious injury, a season-ending Achilles tear, dealing a brutal blow to Golden State and to basketball fans generally. No one knows whether the James Harden-led Rockets will even be led by James Harden a few months from now. In Dallas, Kristaps Porziņģis is going to miss the start of the season, and possibly more, to rehab his knee. The Nuggets lost and cut Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig, respectively, maybe their two best defenders against LeBron. And while the Clippers got Luke Kennard and Serge Ibaka, they still could use a better option at point guard, especially since the Lakers just flipped Harrell’s allegiance.

All things considered, no team out west appears to have closed in on the Lakers in a significant way. At least not yet.

That said, we’re going into yet another abnormal campaign — without a bubble this time — and the Lakers will be led by a 36-year-old, albeit one who’s developed a reputation for being nearly indestructible. Any number of things could ultimately unravel the Lakers’ plans. But if they fall short, it won’t be because of what they failed to accomplish during the whirlwind free-agency period.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.