When the Los Angeles Lakers upgraded from Andrew Bynum at center to Dwight Howard, my instant reaction was, “There’s no way anyone can beat that team.”
They now have the best front line in the league with their Howard-Pau Gasol combination. Both of them are great rebounders that can score on the low block and draw tons of fouls.
They’ve got one of the best perimeter scorers of all time in Kobe Bryant. He isn’t what he used to be, but he’s still one of the best in the world. He barely missed the scoring title last year.
And they’ve got maybe the best distributor in the league to tie it all together in Steve Nash. Howard led the league last year in points per possession on pick-and-rolls as the roller, and Nash is one of the best all-time at running the pick-and-roll. Nash’s ability to spread the floor with his deadly shooting is also a huge positive for the Lakers.
The best part of all, unlike other superstar steams like Miami and New York, Los Angeles won’t suffer from the who-should-shoot-when or I’m-not-happy-because-I’m-not-getting-enough-shots syndromes. Kobe will take the crunch-time shots, and Nash will make sure Howard and Gasol get plenty of wide-open shots and alley-oops in the meantime to keep them happy. And Nash is always happy, no matter how many shots he takes.
This foursome seems almost impossible to beat. Their strengths at center and point guard are the perfect combination to beat the defending champion Miami Heat, whom everyone assumed would become the next NBA dynasty. Should these two powerhouses meet in the Finals that everyone is anticipating, I can’t see the Heat pulling out a victory.
There is one team, however, that I believe is still one step ahead of the Lakers—the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Basketball is a game of matchups, and the Thunder still match up quite well with Los Angeles.
I wrote last week that OKC should amnesty Kendrick Perkins because the league was heading in a smaller, more athletic direction. But now, Perkins is one of the most important players the Thunder have.
No one can really stop Howard, but Perkins is known for his ability to somewhat neutralize the league’s best center.
Starting next to Perkins is the NBA’s two-time defending leader in total blocks, Serge Ibaka. His defense and rebounding match up well against Gasol.
And just in case either of those two get into foul trouble, OKC can bring Nick Collison off the bench. Collison is a great bench guy that brings smarts and other intangibles to the table.
Who guards Kobe? That’s easy. Starter Thabo Sefelosha is one of the league’s premier defenders that can wear Kobe out at the beginning of halves. Then Sixth Man of the Year James Harden comes in, who is not a bad defender.
Then the ever-energetic Russell Westbrook can take on Steve Nash. Westbrook is a very annoying defender. His constant pressure on the ball causes many turnovers, and his persistence will take a toll on a point guard whom will be 39 by the time the 2013 playoffs start.
That leaves the league’s best scorer in Kevin Durant to guard Metta World Peace. Since Peace will likely have a very limited role in the Lakers’ new offense, Durant can focus all his energy on the offensive end.
On the flip side, Nash has never been a good defender and won’t be able to keep up with Westbrook’s incredible athleticism, and Peace depends on strength for his defense, which is not a way to defend Durant. KD is three to four inches taller than Peace and incredibly long. He can shoot right over Peace all day.
The Lakers will have Howard waiting down low for the penetration of Harden and Westbrook, but Westbrook is constantly improving that midrange pull-up. If he makes a few of those in a row, Howard will have to come out of the paint to help, leaving the lane open for penetration.
The Thunder’s youth and athleticism will also be a huge advantage. Durant, Haden, Westbrook and Ibaka are all 23 or younger. While that may almost seem too young, their run to the 2012 Finals makes them much more mature, hungry and experienced than the average 23-year-old NBA player.
Of course, none of this will even matter if Dwight’s back isn’t fully healed, Dwight and Kobe have an alpha dog feud similar to the one that sent Shaq out of town, or if Father Time finally catches up with Nash, Kobe, or Gasol.
As this team stands now, though, they’re clearly at least a top three squad.
But I’m sure the Thunder have something to say about that. The road to the NBA Finals still goes through Oklahoma City.