Sizing Up LA Lakers with Top 5 NBA Powerhouse Teams

Darius Soriano@@forumbluegoldFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2012

Sizing Up LA Lakers with Top 5 NBA Powerhouse Teams

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    Kobe Bryant. Dwight Howard. Steve Nash. Pau Gasol.

    No other team can bring such a star studded lineup to the hardwood each night, and heading into the next season it's the strength of that foursome that has catapulted the Lakers back into the championship conversation.

    Nash's acquisition on offense has shored up the Lakers greatest positional weakness. The former Sun combines elite shooting and play-making that has the potential to give defenses fits. He can run the pick and roll, be a spot up shooter and control the general flow of the game better than most of his peers.

    With Howard, the Lakers have added the best defensive big man in the league. His ability to hedge and recover in the pick and roll while also protecting the rim via his ability to deter or outright erase shots gives the Lakers a defensive foundation only few teams possess.

    And with Kobe and Pau, the Lakers maintain the duo most responsible for bringing the franchise their most recent championship banners. Their chemistry suffered somewhat in the last couple of seasons, but with the aforementioned additions both players should be rejuvenated in their pursuit of adding to their legacies.

    All that said, no one should be handing the Lakers the Larry O'Brien trophy in August. The games must still be played and other teams have staked their claims to being amongst the league elite over countless games these past few seasons. This incarnation of the Lakers has yet to play a minute together and will need their talents to mesh on the court as well as it does on paper. 

    How do they stack up to other title contenders? Let's explore.

The Miami Heat

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    The reigning champion Miami Heat are the team the Lakers are striving to catch. They possess the league's best player, top talents at shooting guard and power forward, and have been to two straight Finals while winning it all this past season.

    When comparing their roster to the Lakers it's easy to see how the Heat match up and could give the Lakers issues. 

    First, it all starts with LeBron. While the Lakers' Metta World Peace offers the type of physical defensive presence at small forward that could theoretically give LeBron some problems, the fact remains that LeBron is the best player in the game.

    His post game is now a staple of his arsenal and his forays to the rim both in the open and half court are nearly impossible to fully stop, even if you're the best perimeter defender.LeBron is simply too good at this point in his career to be slowed by a single defender, which leads to him drawing help defenders and then taking advantage of the D with expert passing.  

    In Wade, the Heat offer a shooting guard that can at least rival what Kobe Bryant brings to the Lakers. Wade is younger and, if fully recovered from the knee issues that hampered him these past playoffs, has the athleticism to match up with Kobe on both ends of the floor. These two have been part of many classic duels over the years and even if you still give the edge to Bryant, the margin is slim enough that Wade's impact is a variable for which they must account.

    In Bosh, the Heat have the exact type of big man that can give both Howard and Gasol some issues offensively. Bosh's ability to step out to the three point line and hit his jumper provides the Heat with needed spacing while also giving them needed points. And when his jumper is going, Bosh can also put the ball on the floor, get to the basket to score or draw fouls. As we saw this past season, Bosh is an integral part of the Heat's offense and his impact can't be overstated.

    With a bench that's also improved via the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, the Heat are both a strong defensive and offensive team that has enough versatility in their personnel to play multiple lineups without compromising their ability to play fast. They can attack the Lakers size from the perimeter, draw fouls on their big men and space the floor with shooters in a manner that makes slowing down their offense very difficult.

    Until proven otherwise, the Heat are the team to beat in this league regardless of the additions the Lakers have made.

The Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last season's Western Conference champions will be back this season, better and hungrier than last year. And while they may have fell short in reaching their ultimate goal, they still pose a very serious threat to the Lakers as the team to beat in the west.

    Scanning OKC's roster leads to some very stark realities for the rest of the league. They're young, super talented and have few, if any, weaknesses.

    Start with their trio of perimeter threats. In Kevin Durant, they possess the league's best scorer and a player that gave Metta World Peace all he could handle in last season's playoffs. Durant's ability to hit shots from anywhere on the floor and improved ball handling make him an off-the-dribble threat when creating in isolation; this means no single defender will ever slow him down.

    Russell Westbrook's ascension as one of the league's premier point guards will mean that Steve Nash will have to play at a high level on both ends of the floor every second they share the court. Westbrook is a demon off the dribble, has developed a consistent mid-range jumper, and has extended his range beyond the three point line.

    In James Harden, the Thunder have the perfect bridge between KD and Russ. Harden's do it all, attack oriented game gives every team fits and the fact that he comes off the bench gives OKC's reserve unit a boost that few teams can match.

    With these three providing offense and Thabo Sefalosha, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins providing elite-level defense, the Thunder still match up incredibly well with the Lakers. Those three will guard the Lakers' trio of Kobe, Pau and Howard, and due to their length and size, they can switch defensively, bottle up the paint and try to make the Lakers beat them from the perimeter.

    How these two teams play when matched up still remains to be seen, but it'd be foolish to think the Lakers are clearly better considering the combination of youth, skill, talent and defense the Thunder can throw at them. 

The San Antonio Spurs

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    The Spurs will forever be the team that never gets enough respect until they're rattling off a double digit win streak that leaves opponents shaking their heads. Though their key players are all aged, they still provide enough skill, experience, coaching and elite execution to be a challenge to the Lakers.

    All that said, the Spurs have clearly fallen behind the Lakers in terms of talent. For the first time, the Lakes have a point guard that can match wits and skill with Tony Parker in Steve Nash. With Howard replacing Bynum, the Lakers have upgraded a position that was already starting to tilt in the Lakers' favor in recent seasons.

    And even if you're of the mind that Kobe and Manu Ginobili are somewhat even, Pau Gasol's presence gives the Lakers the additional big man for which the Spurs don't have a match up.

    Where the Spurs still can hurt the Lakers is in controlling the pace and in their ability to trot out bench players that never waver in the execution of their system. San Antonio has enough depth to force the Lakers' reserves to defend at a high level and keep games close when both sides' stars are off the floor.

    However, with the top end talent the Lakers have, the Spurs will struggle to keep pace this year and have fallen behind in the West's pecking order of elite teams. Coach Popovich's ability to motivate and scheme his way to wins will always be there, but talent will weigh out eventually and this season that edge rests in Los Angeles.

The Boston Celtics

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    The Celtics may have lost Ray Allen, but in retaining Kevin Garnett with Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, while adding Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, they remain an intriguing team that can't be counted out. They have experience, coaching and remain one of the teams most able to impose their will on an opponent in a game or playoff series.

    Heading into next year, though, the C's have only marginally improved from a big picture perspective in comparison to their historical rival. Even with the aforementioned additions, the return of Jeff Green from heart surgery and the drafting of Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, the C's still lack the size to match up with the Lakers.

    If Garnett remains the full time center, he'll be forced into heavy minutes facing off against Dwight Howard in a battle where he gives up strength, quickness and athleticism. And while KG offers smarts in the form of fantastic positional defense paired with pick and roll know-how, he can't be expected to race the floor and bang with the younger Howard possession after possession over the course of a game.

    The rest of the C's roster offers similar dilemmas when comparing their players to their Lakers' counterparts. Paul Pierce still offers great offensive ability but will have to score consistently and efficiently against Metta World Peace. An undersized Jeff Green or Brandon Bass will need to tangle with Gasol. Courtney Lee is a fine defender but gives up size and strength to Kobe Bryant and is vulnerable in the post.

    The one advantage the C's have is Rajon Rondo against Steve Nash. Rondo can make Nash work on both sides of the ball, but that edge is not as great as it used to be over former Laker point guards. Plus, there's still a firm possibility that Kobe guards Rondo by playing off him, disrupting the C's half court sets.

    Ultimately, the C's can still be strong team in an Eastern Conference that has a gap between the champion Heat and the rest of the teams. However, when comparing them to the Lakers, they look to have fallen further behind this offseason.