Sizing Up LA Lakers Big 4 Against OKC Thunder Big 4 Heading into New Season

Jesse DorseyFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2012

Sizing Up LA Lakers Big 4 Against OKC Thunder Big 4 Heading into New Season

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    The Los Angeles Lakers see themselves as favorites to win the Pacific Division in the Western Conference this season, but that's no big feat for the Lakers. The real prize is to come out triumphant as the kings of the Western Conference as a whole.

    Of course, to do that, they're going to have to get past the best teams in the West—the biggest obstacles being the San Antonio Spurs and defending Western Conference Champions Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Should they end up meeting in the playoffs, San Antonio is going to be difficult in their own right, but most fans anticipate a Lakers-Thunder matchup for the ages.

    In anticipation of a potential meeting between the two, it only seems prudent to take a look at each team's best players and break down who has the better top four.

    However, a problem presents itself when you compare the Lakers and the Thunder. Their top players don't all play the same position, and in the case of James Harden, their top players aren't all starters.

    In order to get a fair comparison for both teams, I'll size each team's players up depending on the closest position played by their opponents along with a comparison of the team's options. For instance, based on position, Kobe Bryant will be sized up against Harden, but based on his importance for the Lakers he'll be compared to Kevin Durant.

    From there we'll take a look at which team is the most top-heavy and which team, based on those four players, is in better shape.

    We'll start with the best possible position-by-position face-off.

Point Guard: Russell Westbrook vs. Steve Nash

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    Steve Nash 2012 Stats: PPG-12.5, APG-10.7, RPG-3.0, SPG-0.6, BPG-0.1, FG%-53.2, 3PT%-39, FT%-89.4

    Russell Westbrook Stats: PPG-24.1, APG-5.6, RPG-4.6, SPG-1.7, BPG-0.3, FG%45.7, 3PT%-31.6, FT%-82.3

    From a purely point guard basis, Steve Nash is the better option. If we're talking in terms of who is going to bring more to a basketball team, Russell Westbrook has to be the winner.

    Sure, Nash is going to give you a floor general rivaled by only two or three other point guards in the league, but he's older, slower, less capable of scoring in big bunches and can't play defense worth anything.

    That being said, Westbrook has his deficiencies as well. He's shot-happy at times (a problem that comes and goes) and he is nowhere near as efficient as Nash—but that's going to happen when Westbrook is taking 10 more shots every game than him.

    It's an interesting thought that while the Thunder might be better off if Westbrook approached the game more like Nash, he's still a better player than Nash.

Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant vs. James Harden

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    Kobe Bryant 2012 Stats: PPG-27.9, APG-4.6, RPG-5.4, SPG-1.2, BPG-0.3, FG%-43, 3PT%-30.3, FT%-84.5

    James Harden 2012 Stats: PPG-19.3, APG-4.7, RPG-4.1, SPG-1.1, BPG-0.3, FG%-49.1, 3PT%39, FT%-84.6

    The first thing to point out when comparing Kobe Bryant and James Harden is that Harden comes off the bench and averaged eight fewer minutes per game than Kobe last season—he simply had fewer opportunities to put up the Kobe-esque scoring numbers.

    With fewer minutes and just two starts under his belt last season, Harden was able to nearly match Kobe in every statistical category not including points per game, and outperform him in terms of efficiency.

    What remains to be seen, however, is whether or not Harden would be able to keep those percentages as high if he were starting, or even more, if he was asked to take on a Kobe-sized scoring load.

    Odds are those percentages drop slightly as a starter and dramatically if he's taking 23 shots a game instead of 10.

    Kobe is the perfect player for what the Lakers need him to do and Harden is the perfect player for what the Thunder need him to do.

Forward: Pau Gasol vs. Kevin Durant

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    Pau Gasol 2012 Stats: PPG-17.4, APG-3.7, RPG-10.4, SPG-0.6, BPG-1.4, FG%-50.1, 3PT%-25.9, FT%-78.2

    Kevin Durant 2012 Stats: PPG-28, APG-3.5, RPG-8, SPG-1.3, BPG-1.2, FG%-49.6, 3PT%-38.7, FT%-86

    They play different positions, but they're nearly the same height (Kevin Durant's bio calls him 6'9", but I'd be willing to bet that's closer to 6'11" on most days) and play big roles for their teams.

    Obviously Durant is a much better scorer than Gasol, he can score from the inside, off the dribble, with a hand in his face, with defenders standing on each others shoulders or with a human pyramid in front of him.

    Gasol, meanwhile is best in the post, wriggling and dancing his way around his defender, putting the biscuit in the basket with moderate efficiency for a big fellow.

    Both are average on defense, although Gasol probably tends more toward the lower end of average while Durant is slowly becoming a more effective and physical defender.

    Where Gasol separates himself is on the glass, the only time he throws his body around like he should. Gasol knows how to box guys out and knows how to read a bounce off the rim before the ball gets there. Durant is more of an athletic, while still an effective rebounder.

    There's no way of denying the fact that Kevin Durant is one of the three most dynamic basketball players in the world, whereas Pau Gasol is—well, he's Pau Gasol.

Big Man: Dwight Howard vs. Serge Ibaka

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    Dwight Howard 2012 Stats: PPG-20.6, APG-1.9, RPG-14.5, SPG-1.4, BPG-1.5, FG%-57.3, 3PT%-0.0, FT%-49.1

    Serge Ibaka 2012 Stats: PPG-9.1, APG-0.4, RPG-7.5, SPG-0.5, BPG-3.7, FG%-53.5, 3PT%-33.3, FT%-66.1

    Let me start off and acknowledge two things here. First, Ibaka may not be the "center" for the Thunder, but there's no way you can call Kendrick Perkins the fourth most important player on the Thunder—so we'll use Ibaka for this case. Second, Dwight Howard is a better defensive player than Serge Ibaka.

    But wait, Ibaka got more votes than Howard in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, right? Of course there was no backlash against Howard's antics in the voting. None whatsoever.

    Statistically you can say Ibaka's a better shot blocker, and they're not far apart in that category, but I'd still take Howard over Ibaka. Ibaka's shot blocking is more youthful and risk-taking compared to Howard. Howard is keen to camp in the lane and take blocks that are given to him, whereas Ibaka is more prone to biting on pump fakes and going over-aggressively across the lane to try to swat a shot.

    Elsewhere, Tyson Chandler is the only other player in the league capable of turning a group of guys into a cohesive defensive unit, while Ibaka is merely a single threat in the post.

    Offensively it's not even close. Howard is a dominant force on the offensive end. Ibaka gets the nod when it comes to range, as his mid-range jumper is coming along brilliantly, but Howard doesn't need to take shots from outside of the paint.

First Option: Kobe Bryant vs. Kevin Durant

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    Kobe Bryant 2012 Stats: PPG-27.9, APG-4.6, RPG-5.4, SPG-1.2, BPG-0.3, FG%-43, 3PT%-30.3, FT%-84.5

    Kevin Durant 2012 Stats: PPG-28, APG-3.5, RPG-8, SPG-1.3, BPG-1.2, FG%-49.6, 3PT%-38.7, FT%-86

    Comparing players by position only gets so much of the argument across, but comparing them in terms of who is most important to their team is where we really get to the crux of the issue.

    For the past few years there has been a four-way debate over who is the best scorer in the NBA; Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony. Over time we've figured out that LeBron is likely to go for all-around glory and Carmelo hasn't stepped up to the plate to challenge for the scoring title, leaving us just Durant and Kobe.

    Looking at it statistically it's no contest. Durant outscores Kobe on fewer shot attempts, it's as simple as that. You know what, that should be enough to settle the argument over who is the better offensive player as well.

    Sure, Kobe is a better passer and you can argue that he's got the experience to score late in games, but even that doesn't hold up. Durant killed Kobe in clutch scoring last season, shooting 41 percent to Kobe's 33 percent.

    Defensively I'd have to give the nod to Kobe, even though he's slower and less apt to swat a shot. Kobe is still great at sticking his man, roughing him up and getting away with a cheap shot here and there. Durant just doesn't play defense with the spunk that Kobe does.

    If forced to choose, you'd be crazy to go with Kobe over Durant.

Second Option: Dwight Howard vs. Russell Westbrook

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    Dwight Howard 2012 Stats: PPG-20.6, APG-1.9, RPG-14.5, SPG-1.4, BPG-1.5, FG%-57.3, 3PT%-0.0, FT%-49.1

    Russell Westbrook Stats: PPG-24.1, APG-5.6, RPG-4.6, SPG-1.7, BPG-0.3, FG%45.7, 3PT%-31.6, FT%-82.3

    Here we have a maddeningly intriguing match-up. On the surface, it's Dwight Howard over Russell Westbrook 100 times out of 100, right? Maybe something more like 79 times out of 100.

    Dwight is obviously the dominant defensive presence that he's always been and he can score in the post easily, but he's not the decisive player that Westbrook is.

    For all the doubt and derision that Westbrook gets, he has come through in the clutch often for Oklahoma City, whereas Dwight rarely has a huge part in closing out or coming from behind in close games. In fact, Westbrook averages more than double the number of shots in 48 minutes of clutch time compared to Dwight. Westbrook shoots more than 28 shots per 48 minutes in the clutch—Dwight shoots just 12.

    If anything, Howard is a liability on offense with the game on the line. If he gets the ball and is fouled without making a shot, he shoots just 44 percent from the line when it matters most, where Westbrook actually shoots better in every category when things are tight.

    Even with all that in mind, you still have to take Howard for his defensive presence, his ability to exploit any team in the post on offense and, well, because he's Dwight Howard. However, it's not as big a slam dunk as you would think.

Third Option: James Harden vs. Steve Nash

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    Steve Nash 2012 Stats: PPG-12.5, APG-10.7, RPG-3.0, SPG-0.6, BPG-0.1, FG%-53.2, 3PT%-39, FT%-89.4

    James Harden 2012 Stats: PPG-19.3, APG-4.7, RPG-4.1, SPG-1.1, BPG-0.3, FG%-49.1, 3PT%39, FT%-84.6

    It's hard to discern between the number three and four option for the Lakers, but for right now, I'll assume that Nash will be number three just because he'll be a more involved member of the offense, while Gasol will continue to score more than Nash.

    Harden is better defensively than Nash, there's no question about that, but on offense it still seems that Nash brings more to the table than Harden.

    Nash continues to be one of the top distributors in the game. He can shoot with the efficiency that he did when Harden was in high school and his basketball IQ makes him as valuable as any other point guard in the NBA.

    If given Harden's role as the scorer off the bench, Nash could probably step in and do it with little trouble, even at his advanced age.

    The reigning Sixth Man of the Year should continue to grow his game, and he is rapidly becoming more and more valuable to the Thunder, but Nash's ability with the ball is just too much to ignore.

Fourth Option: Serge Ibaka vs. Pau Gasol

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    Pau Gasol 2012 Stats: PPG-17.4, APG-3.7, RPG-10.4, SPG-0.6, BPG-1.4, FG%-50.1, 3PT%-25.9, FT%-78.2

    Serge Ibaka 2012 Stats: PPG-9.1, APG-0.4, RPG-7.5, SPG-0.5, BPG-3.7, FG%-53.5, 3PT%-33.3, FT%-66.1

    Serge Ibaka is to the Oklahoma City Thunder defense what Pau Gasol is to the Los Angeles Lakers' offense.

    In Oklahoma City, Ibaka is the last line of defense. He's an excellent help defender and he can block shots to the other side of the arena if need be. Ibaka is intimidating and effective in a huge range due to his long arms and athleticism. Offensively he's developing a mid-range game, but he's not going to give any team more than a dozen points in a game at this point.

    Conversely, Gasol is an excellent dump-off option after Kobe Bryant kills the shot clock, he's capable of scoring in a multitude of ways, either in the post or with a contested jumper. Defensively he's not much to look at, but he's a big body to but in the way of another big body.

    It really depends on what you need from a guy when picking between these two. If you want a defensive stopper who can get you a few extra possessions, pick Ibaka. If you want an offensive machine who can still run and work guys over in the post, pick Gasol.

Winners and Conclusions

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    Well that's it, right? The Lakers must be better than the Thunder. After all we've got a score of one for the Thunder, two for the Lakers and a kind of semi-push in the final spot.

    Hold your horses, my friends.

    Looking at it closely it does seem that the Lakers have the better top four players than the Thunder, I'll concede that. There are still a few issues like players actually playing together and working out. But in terms of crowning a paper champion, I'll go with the Lakers over the Thunder in terms of their top four.

    However, the Lakers five through 12 guys still can't compare to Oklahoma City's. You've got the likes of Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks compared to Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and Eric Maynor.

    Plus you've got to factor in that the Thunder guys have been playing together as long as they've all been in the NBA, whereas this will be the first time Steve Nash and Dwight Howard have played alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

    These two teams are going to be maddeningly entertaining to watch, but until something emerges to change the landscape of the debate, Los Angeles is still looking up at Oklahoma City.

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