Add Metta World Peace, one of the league’s premier defenders and a still capable forward in Pau Gasol and the Lakers may rightfully be favorites to win the Western Conference.
But a closer look at the top two teams in the West shows that the reigning champions (of the conference) are still set up to repeat.
First, a look at the run that the Oklahoma City Thunder made last season shows that they are an elite team. Although they didn’t win the NBA Finals, their playoff run was one for the ages. Ten of the past 14 NBA champions were one of the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs or the Dallas Mavericks.
Oklahoma City beat each of those teams in one playoff run—not to mention they beat a Spurs team that was riding a 20-game winning streak.
In those three playoff series until the NBA Finals, the Thunder had a combined record of 12-3. OKC more than held their own against some of the league’s most playoff-savvy teams.
It should not come as a surprise that the Miami Heat were able to demolish a worn-out Thunder team. Miami only had to defeat the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers in the first two rounds. While that’s not meant to discredit Miami’s run in any way—they were deserving champions—Oklahoma City’s run was impressive in its own right.
With the Big Three in OKC still young and hungry for a title, they will come to play. Dwight Howard in Los Angeles will not intimidate them. Add on the fact that it is a contract year for James Harden and Serge Ibaka (both have team options for next season), and the youth in OKC will continue to show that they are at the top of the NBA.
Who is your pick to win the West?
Kevin Durant’s name hasn’t even been mentioned yet.
The three-time scoring champion is a quiet, lead-by-example player who has ice in his veins (as he showed in the playoffs against MWP and the Lakers) and is only 23 years old. His personality allows Russell Westbrook to take the shots that he does.
Think of it this way: In Kobe Bryant’s heyday (or even now), could a Westbrook and Kobe duo work?
The answer to that question is a self-evident, resounding no.
Kevin Durant is as unselfish a scorer as possible, maybe with the exception of LeBron James. He is the ideal teammate for those precise reasons—he is talented, unselfish and hungry.
Now let’s have a look at the new-look Lakers, whose lineup presumably will look something like this: Steve Nash (PG), Kobe Bryant (SG), MWP (SF), Pau Gasol (PF) and Dwight Howard (C).
As great as Bryant and Howard were on their own, they were both big fish in the pond. Remember how the Bryant-Shaq pairing turned out?
Kobe Bryant may say that he is all about winning, and the media does encourage those thoughts, but he relishes the comparisons to Michael Jordan. He wants to be the greatest individual player of all time.
Add on the fact that Kobe will not be the primary ball-handler with Steve Nash running point and it will be easy to see Kobe complaining that the Lakers' early season struggles are not his fault. Remember how he railed Pau Gasol in the playoffs last season?
With age comes impatience for a waning superstar and Kobe only has a couple years left (at least according to his word). If he does not perform like he expects to, Bryant will find a teammate or coach to place the blame on.
Moreover, Andrew Bynum’s three-pointer, among other occurrences last year, showed that Mike Brown didn’t have the respect of his players. Following in the path of Laker legend Phil Jackson isn’t (and won’t be) easy.
Scott Brooks, on the other hand, has already proven that his players say and do the right things both on and off the court.
OKC defeated Tim Duncan, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol last year. Overcoming Dwight Howard won’t be much more difficult.
Read more of B/R featured columnist Elijah Abramson's writing at Bases and Baskets.com including a popular discussion comparing Kobe Bryant to LeBron James.