Kobe Bryant, left, and the Lakers might not be the odds-on favorite to win… (Larry W. Smith / EPA; Mike…)
Odds are, things could change in a hurry.
Miami's Big Three might not look quite as formidable to Las Vegas bookmakers who have tabbed the Heat the early 2012 NBA title favorite if Chris Paul and Dwight Howard leave their respective teams.
Paul, the New Orleans point guard purported to be on the trading block along with Orlando's Howard, appears to be in play for a handful of teams, including the Lakers and New York Knicks.
"There's so many variables," TNT analyst Kenny Smith said when asked for his championship picks in a lockout-shortened season. "Chris Paul is a guy who could make the Knicks a contender."
As if having two of the league's top players potentially on the move wasn't enough to throw early NBA title prognostications into disarray, there's also a compressed free-agency period starting Friday, when teams can reach agreements with players not under contract.
Blink and you may miss the Heat being the 2-1 favorite to win the title, according to the Las Vegas Hilton's sports book. The Lakers are getting 5-1 odds to win the title.
The Clippers? For those who dare to dream, Blake Griffin & Co. are getting 50-1 odds — for the moment, anyway.
"It could look a whole lot different next Monday," said Jay Rood, vice president of race and sports for MGM Resorts, alluding to the expected flurry of player moves.
If teams remain largely the same as currently constructed, ABC and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said he liked Miami, defending champion Dallas, the Lakers and Oklahoma City as his title contenders.
Miami, Van Gundy reasoned, still has the best talent with LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. But Dallas remains the champion until someone shows it's better, Van Gundy said. The Lakers remain imposing only a season removed from the second of consecutive titles and Oklahoma City is an up-and-coming power with young stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Van Gundy knows what it takes to take a team deep into the playoffs during a lockout-shortened season, having guided the eighth-seeded Knicks to the NBA Finals in 1999 before they lost to the San Antonio Spurs.
"This season will all be about survival," Van Gundy said. "Teams have to embrace the challenge of the absurdities like nine games in 12 days, three games in a row. The more mentally tough and physically tough players that you have, the better chance you have to respond."
For the Lakers, that will mean persevering through three consecutive games starting with the season opener on Christmas at Staples Center against the Chicago Bulls.
That gauntlet will be compounded for the Lakers by the loss of Andrew Bynum for the first five games while the center serves a suspension for knocking Dallas' J.J. Barea to the court during last season's playoffs. Since the Lakers are playing only 66 games during the regular season, Bynum will sit out 7.6% of their games versus 6.1% in a full-length, 82-game season.
TNT's Smith said the shortened season doesn't favor younger teams over older counterparts such as the Lakers, who have eight players older than 30. That position is supported by Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports book operations for the Las Vegas Hilton, who said the title odds didn't change based on the truncated schedule.
"It's a shorter season for [older teams] too, so they won't have to play those extra 16 games," Kornegay said. "That could save their legs for the playoffs. In our eyes, there's no difference."
USC Coach Kevin O'Neill, a former Toronto Raptors coach and assistant with three other NBA teams, gave it the old college try when asked for his title favorites, picking Dallas, Miami and Boston.
"I always go with veteran teams with a shortened schedule," O'Neill said.
Smith's championship contenders included usual suspects Miami, Dallas and the Lakers, as well as trendy pick Oklahoma City and Boston, whose aging roster could undergo a significant overhaul via trades or free agency. Available free agents include Tyson Chandler, David West and Arron Afflalo.
"A couple of those guys end up with the Lakers or the Celtics," Smith said, "it changes the whole dynamic of who does what."
Clippers point guard Mo Williams already has guaranteed his team will make the playoffs, which might seem like folly for a franchise that has appeared in the postseason once since 1997. But Smith said the prediction isn't farfetched as long as Griffin consistently makes 15-foot jump shots and logs what Smith described as "monster games" of 20-plus rebounds.
Of course, given all the uncertainty surrounding the Clippers — and everyone else — O'Neill isn't calling Williams' declaration a safe bet at this point.
"It's a little early," O'Neill said, "to be guaranteeing anything."
ODDS TO WIN 2012 NBA CHAMPIONSHIP
Las Vegas Hilton:
Oklahoma City 6-1
San Antonio 20-1
New York 30-1
New Orleans 50-1
New Jersey 50-1
Golden State 100-1