Eastern power shift

LeBron James will join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, creating what certainly appears to be a championship contender in Miami. Amare Stoudemire has left Phoenix in favor of New York. Carlos Boozer has left Utah in favor of Chicago. Sense a trend here? Sure, James, Wade and Bosh already played in the Eastern Conference, but the departures of Stoudemire and Boozer strengthen the East and weaken the West.

It doesn’t ensure a fourth consecutive trip to the Finals for the two-time defending champion Lakers, but it could make it easier for them. Phoenix gave the Lakers fits in the West finals in May and Utah has been a troublesome playoff foe the last three years. The Suns won’t be as tough without Stoudemire and the Jazz won’t be as competitive without Boozer, leaving Denver, Oklahoma City and Portland as the teams to beat.

Of the three, OKC could be the biggest pests for the Lakers. Denver’s situation with Carmelo Anthony is worrisome for Nuggets fans. Signing him to an extension would solve a great deal of uncertainty. Not signing him could cause problems. Portland’s injury problems derailed any chances of a long playoff run last spring. Greg Oden’s career could be over before it even starts. As for OKC, the up-and-coming Thunder could prove to be difficult to contend with for seasons to come after giving Kevin Durant an extension.

What about the Dallas Mavericks?

Or the Clippers?

Or the San Antonio Spurs if they sign Shaq?

My prediction: if the Lakers avoid injuries, they should advance to the Finals again.

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Blake signs contract

The Lakers signed Steve Blake to a four-year, $16-million contract today, scratching one item of their offseason to-do list. They still must re-sign Derek Fisher to a new deal and try to lure Shannon Brown back with a new contract after he opted to become a free agent. Today was the first day free agents could sign new contracts. The Lakers and Blake agreed on the deal last Friday. Fisher has returned from China, so it would figure to be only a matter of time before he and the Lakers get a new deal done. I’m guessing that two years and $8 million probably would get Fisher’s name on the dotted line. Then again, Fisher’s value in big games (See: Game 3 of the Finals) is worth considerably more to the Lakers.

Here’s what Bryant told reporters at his camp at UC Santa Barbara on Wednesday:

“We need to have him back, it’s as simple as that. It’s not a question of if he will be back; it’s a matter of when. I don’t care what [the cost] is,They need to work that out and get him back because his significance to our ballclub and to me cannot be understated.

“He’s our big-shot maker, he complements me in terms of leadership in the locker room because he’s the guy that puts his arms around everybody and he’s our emotional leader and that allows me to be the taskmaster. We need to get him back and have him be a part of this group and in the fold.

“I’m optimistic that it will happen but we got to get that done.”

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Fisher update

Derek Fisher wrote on Twitter this afternoon that he’s returned from China. Whether he stopped off at the office of Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak on his way home from LAX is anyone’s guess. He can sign with the Lakers (or any other team) starting at 9:01 p.m. tonight). I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a while longer before a deal is struck. Our friends at ESPNLos Angeles.com reported Tuesday that Kupchak has been in contact with Fisher’s agent, Rob Pelinka, but Kupchak declined to reveal any details. Fisher was in China representing the NBA at the World Expo.

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Salary cap set at $58.044 million

Here are the details from the NBA’s press release: “The National Basketball Association today announced that the Salary Cap for the 2010-11 season will be $58.044 million.The tax level for the 2010-11 season has been set at $70.307 million. Any team whose team salary exceeds that figure will pay a $1 tax for each $1 by which it exceeds $70.307 million.

“The 2009-10 Salary Cap was $57.70 million and the tax level was $69.92 million. …

“The new Salary Cap and tax level go into effect at 9:01 p.m. tonight. …

“The mid-level exception is $5.765 million for the 2010-11 season.”

FYI: The Lakers’ payroll was $91.4 milion last season, highest in the league.

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No Turkey for Kobe

Kobe Bryant will skip the World Championships later this summer in Turkey, which should make the Lakers and their fans happy. Bryant told Team USA chairman Jerry Colangelo he plans to rest rather than play. Pau Gasol earlier said he won’t play for Spain, wishing to rest after winning back-to-back titles in three straight trips to the NBA Finals. Lamar Odom plans to compete for a spot on the Team USA roster. Bryant said last month he will undergo surgery to mend an injured right index finger. He also had ankle and knee injuries while leading the Lakers to their fifth championship in the 2000s. Colangelo told AOL Fanhouse that Bryant “wanted to play,” but rest was more important to him.

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Summer league info

Here is the Lakers’ summer league schedule:

Friday, vs. Detroit, 5 p.m., Cox Pavilion, Nevada Las Vegas.
Saturday vs. Denver, 3 p.m., Cox Pavilion, UNLV.
July 12 vs. New York, 1 p.m., Cox Pavilion, UNLV.
July 13 vs. Sacramento, 5:30 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center, UNLV.
July 15, vs. San Antonio, 1 p.m., Cox Pavilion, UNLV.

Here is the roster:

Derrick Caracter, F/C, UTEP, rookie.
Devin Ebanks, F, West Virginia, rookie.
Gerald Green, F. Gulf Shores Academy (Texas), fifth year.
Rob Kurz, F, Notre Dame, second year.
Ibrahim Jaaber, guard, Penn, rookie.
Ben McCauley, F, North Carolina State, rookie.
Andrew Maymick, C, Michigan State, second year.
Frank Robinson, G, Cal State Fullerton, first year.
Tyler Sanborn, C, Guilford College, rookie.
Courtney Sims, C, Michigan, third year.
D.J. Strawberry, G, Maryland, third year.
Coach: Chuck Person.

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Blake agrees to join Lakers

Guard Steve Blake and the Lakers agreed today on a four-season contract worth $16 million, either providing the team with a capable backup for Derek Fisher or a replacement if they can’t work out a new contract. Blake split last season with the Clippers and the Portland Trail Blazers, averaging 7.3 points and 4.8 assists. Funny story: his sister, Debbie, is a producer on a sports talk show in Portland, Ore. She broke the news. The Lakers can’t sign Blake until next Thursday. New teammate Ron Artest reacted in typical fashion via Twitter, “Welcome Steve Blake! He’s super dope!!!”

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Mitch talks about Phil

Here are some thoughts from Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak about the return of Phil Jackson to coach the team for one more season:

“We’re ecstatic to have him back. Normally he takes more time to make the decision, but I think he recognized with free agency and some of our assistant coaches up for other jobs, people needed to know what his future was, so he took some early time to get medical evaluations that might take a week or two.

“I had a dialog with him for three or four days. I felt good about it, but he never committed. So, to get a phone call Wednesday night from him, it was not completely out of the blue, but certainly it felt good to know he was coming back. For the organization, it’s a huge plus. In terms of stability and looking for a new coach, that’s something you don’t have to do. Like I said, I had dialog with him … talking about assistant coaches, giving updates on our players on prospective players, the assistant coaches with Brian Shaw with the Cleveland (job) opportunity.

“I always felt he was engaged. You can tell if someone’s really not going to come back. They’re really not engaged in future decisions for an organization. I felt he was engaged and I always felt good about where we were. Most of his decision hinged on medical evaluations, so if he got a call from a doctor, no matter how our conversations were going, he could have done a 180 pretty quick.

“I felt all along this is an opportunity that coaches love to have. This is a team that can continue to compete at a high level for several years. … I think he’s obviously comfortable with the team. He’s got a great relationship with the organization. We all work well together. His staff is intact. There won’t be any major changes to the team, so I’m not that surprised that this was his decision.

“I don’t anticipate any problems (agreeing on a contract). Quite frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s done within a week or sooner. We’ve had some dialog with his representative today and I don’t see any problems. There always could be a problem until you get a signature, but I don’t anticipate any problems. The organization and Phil and his representative, it’s always been amicable. We’ve been able to work things out. (Whether this really is his final season) is a question for him. It sounds as if that’s what he’s decided, but I’m happy to have him back this year and maybe a year from now we’re going through the same decision-making process.”

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Fisher update

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said today he plans to meet with Derek Fisher’s agent, Rob Pelinka, as soon as this weekend or perhaps early next week in an attempt to negotiate a new contract for the veteran point guard.

“I think with Derek, we’ll sit down,” Kupchak said. “I don’t think he wants to go anywhere and I don’t think we want him to go anywhere. So there’s a hope that you sit down and you work something out, and I believe that will happen.”

A source close to Fisher indicated numerous media reports were incorrect in reporting that the Lakers had made a one-season, $2.5 million offer to Fisher. No offer has been made, the source said. Fisher has been contacted by several other teams, however.

Kupchak also said he hasn’t met face-to-face with any outside free agents and he declined to comment on an Internet story that reported the Lakers were interested in signing free agent shooting guard Mike Miller.

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Jackson will coach next season

Two weeks after leading the Lakers to a second consecutive NBA championship, Phil Jackson announced today he would return to try to coach the team to a third straight title. He also said it would be his final season as the Lakers’ coach.

“Count me in,” Jackson said in a statement. “After a couple of weeks of deliberation, it is time to get back to the challenge of putting together another team that can defend its title in the 2010-11 season.It will be the last stand for me, and I hope a grand one.”

Jackson said before leaving for his summer home in Montana last week that he was “leaning toward retiring,” but reversed course after receiving a clean bill of health from his doctors. Jackson, 64, has had both hips replaced in recent seasons and this season wore a brace on his sore left knee. He also had heart issues several years ago.

“We’re extremely pleased that Phil has decided to return,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said of the Hall of Fame coach. “With this most recent championship, we’ve now won five titles in the 10 years he’s been our head coach and have been to the Finals in seven of those 10 years, which is amazing. He’s not only the best coach for this team, but quite simply the best coach in the history of the NBA.”

Jackson has won a league-record 11 titles as a coach, including six with the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. He also was a member of two championship teams as a player with the New York Knicks in the 1970s. His .705 winning percentage as a coach is the best in league history as are his 225 playoff victories.

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