The Los Angeles Lakers' recent acquisition of megastar center Dwight Howard will force the reigning Western Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder to make big adjustments if they wish to revisit the NBA Finals next year.
Granted, the Thunder have the best scorer in the NBA in Kevin Durant (28 PPG in 2011-12). However, the team's currently established interior defense and offense will struggle to compete against Howard and accompanying seven footer Pau Gasol.
One high-risk solution to this problem would be for the Thunder to part with point guard Russell Westbrook in return for the following players:
1. A 15 PPG, 10 RPG center to counter Howard.
2. A pass-first point guard who will move the ball around the floor effectively against grinding half-court defenses.
A Westbrook-Driven Oklahoma City Offense Won't Prevail Against The Lakers in 2012-13
Of course, there is a lot to like about Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, who averaged 24 points per game in the regular season, is the best slashing guard in the NBA. According to hoopdata.com, of Westbrook's 19 field goal attempts per game in 2011-12, six were around the rim, where he shot 61 percent. Westbrook got to the foul line six times a game as well.
It was Westbrook's high-tempo style of play and aggression in the paint that beat the Los Angeles Lakers 4-1 in the 2012 Western Conference semifinal.
In the last two games of the series, Westbrook averaged 32.5 points a game. Westbrook reached the paint at at will against the Lakers, and then-Los Angeles center Andrew Bynum was ineffectual at stopping Westbrook's drives to the basket.
Westbrook's activity in the paint will be less of a problem for the Lakers now that they have Dwight Howard in the middle. Howard is a significant defensive upgrade over Andrew Bynum and will do much to staunch Westbrook's offensive flow.
Howard won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award for an unprecedented three consecutive years between 2009 and 2011. Over this time period, he was also the league leader in defensive rating during the NBA playoffs (according to basketball-reference.com), where he averaged more than three blocked shots per game.
Howard's presence on the Lakers frontcourt will force Westbrook to take more jumpers from the outside, which is a weakness to the point guard's game. Outside Westbrook's scoring around the rim, he shot less than 40 percent from three feet and farther last year, according to basketball-reference.com.
Odds are that Westbrook won't adjust his game when the time comes against the Lakers to become a pass first point guard and defer to Durant and last year's Sixth Man of the year, James Harden.
Overall, Westbrook averaged an anemic ratio of 5.5 assists to 3.6 turnovers a game last season. Moreover, he only averages 1.3 assists a game to targets between two to 23 feet from the basket. This means that his ability to distribute the ball evenly to all other teammates in a half-court set is poor.
Oklahoma City's Interior Offense and Defense Must Improve Significantly to beat the Lakers
Oklahoma City has other concerns to address now that Howard is the Lakers' center. While the Thunder are an outstanding up-tempo, jump shooting squad with Durant, Westbrook and Harden, their frontcourt offense and defense are both suspect.
Next season, Howard will be receiving feeds from one of the best pick-and-roll point guards of all time, Steve Nash. Nash may help Howard's offensive game, which is already at a solid 20 points per night over 57 percent field goal shooting during last four years, become even more potent.
Moreover, because the Lakers will emphasize a half-court, interior game at both ends of the floor, they will be able to slow down Oklahoma City's offense considerably. That is a huge advantage for the Lakers.
Oklahoma City cannot beat the Lakers in a slow-tempo game that focuses on Howard and Gasol. Over the past two seasons, Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins has missed half his games due to injuries.
When Perkins has been healthy, he posted a mediocre five points and seven rebounds a game. He is a poor solution to defend Howard.
Oklahoma City power forward Serge Ibaka is a decent scorer with some upside. Last year he averaged nine points off seven field goal attempts a game and 53 percent shooting. However, Westbrook doesn't feed Ibaka the ball nearly enough.
While Ibaka is a terrific defender at power forward, he is undersized at 6'9" to both score against or defend Howard.
Potential Trade Destination for Westbrook
Given these considerations, here are two potential trades that Oklahoma City can make that would allow them to contend against the Lakers next season:
1. Westbrook to the Indiana Pacers for C Roy Hibbert and PG DJ Augustin: Hibbert would be the centerpiece of this deal for Oklahoma City. The 25-year-old center averaged 13 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots a game for the Pacers during his first All-Star year in 2011-12.
Hibbert's offensive game still has some upside. However, more importantly, he has the defensive frontcourt presence to prevent the Lakers from exploiting the Thunder down low. Hibbert could get Howard in foul trouble early in games as well.
Augustin is a fifth-year point guard who will do his job for the Thunder. He's a strong ball distributor who averaged six assists on only two turnovers a game last year for the Charlotte Bobcats. (Augustin was acquired by the Pacers in the offseason.)
Without Westbrook, the Thunder's offense will have to focus more on Harden, Durant, Hibbert and Ibaka. However, because each player can score considerably more points playing with one another, Westbrook's scoring will be compensated for.
2. Westbrook to the Atlanta Hawks for C Al Horford and PG Jeff Teague: Al Hortford is only 26 years old and, before his knee injury in 2011-12, was a rising star in the NBA. In the prior 2010-11 season, Horford averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 assists a game.
While a little undersized at 6'10", Horford's combination of size and athleticism is sufficient to defend against Howard and certainly an upgrade for the Thunder at the center position.
Jeff Teague is an intriguing young point guard. In his first season as a starter in 2011-12, Teague averaged 13 points, five assists and two turnovers a game on an Atlanta Hawks squad that doesn't have the same caliber of offensive weapons as Oklahoma City.
Either of these trades may seem quizzical at first. However, if Oklahoma City wants to develop from a hyper-talented team to a well-balanced one with a legitimate chance at beating both the Lakers and, presumably, the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, these are transactions the Thunder may want to strongly consider.
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