With the offseason acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the Los Angeles Lakers are now considered favorites in the Western Conference. Alongside the Oklahoma City Thunder, last season’s Western Champs, and perhaps the aging San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers are expected to be serious contenders for the West in the race for the 2012-13 NBA Championship.
Adding a veteran point guard in Nash and the league's best center in Howard to a team that already possessed Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol makes the Lakers a daunting task for any team to face. Still, there are some quietly solid Western Conference squads who should give the Lakers a challenge this season.
While the Lakers will end up in the top two in the West when the playoffs come around, these six teams will be surprisingly resilient and will give Los Angeles some tough games. Let’s check out six squads in the Western Conference that could pose tough matchups for the Lakers this season.
The Portland Trail Blazers tanked away last season and ended up with the No. 6 and No. 11 overall picks in the 2012 NBA draft. While No. 11 selection Meyers Leonard won’t pose much of a threat to anyone this season, let alone a MVP candidate in Dwight Howard, the Blazers' other rookie will be a big-time danger.
Damian Lillard, the No. 6 overall selection, is my bet for Rookie of the Year. He’s NBA-ready and with his athleticism and scoring ability he’ll pose a big-time threat for the aging Steve Nash to guard. Nash was never a good defender, and he’s only gone downhill with age. If the Lakers switch Kobe Bryant over to guard Lillard, that would leave Nash guarding Wesley Mathews, who at 6’7” would be able to power through Nash every time.
The Blazers also have Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge, two very strong players. Don’t expect Portland to be in the lottery again next season—this is a dangerous team.
Quick note here—I’m not saying the Kings are going to challenge the Lakers in the playoffs. Sacramento will improve on last season, but I doubt they make the postseason. I’m not even calling them a top 15 team—but against the Lakers, they sure play like one.
In the past two years, the Kings are 3-4 versus Los Angeles, including two wins against the Lakers last season. DeMarcus Cousins is arguably the second- or third-best center in the league (depending on how you rate Andrew Bynum), and with new rookie Thomas Robinson in the paint the Kings are one of the few teams that may match the Lakers for muscle inside.
The Kings' season hinges on the development of Tyreke Evans, who has been considered a disappointment since his rookie season. When he’s on, he’s one of the rare 2-guards who can give Kobe Bryant fits offensively. Add in Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Thornton and Sacramento may be able to hold pace with the Lakers scoring-wise.
Again, I’m not expecting the Kings to be a playoff team, but some of their best games over the last two seasons have been against the Lakers.
Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard make an incredibly versatile inside duo. The Utah Jazz, however, have an advantage over the Lakers in pure big-man depth.
Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors crowd the Jazz’s roster, and that isn’t even mentioning last year’s No. 3 overall selection, Enes Kanter. You’d have to give Gasol and Howard the nod over any two of those four players, but if the Jazz can draw fouls from one of the Lakers' bigs, they’ll have an immediate advantage. Los Angeles has Jordan Hill off the bench, but they lack any other big-man depth.
The Jazz have a weakness at guard, where Mo Williams and Alec Burks are expected to start. Those two can’t keep up with Nash and Bryant, but in the paint, Utah will pose a very serious threat.
The Golden State Warriors have a team on paper that seems primed for a playoff spot. I include the “on paper” caveat, of course, because Golden State will never make the postseason if they can’t learn to play defense.
Of the Warriors' starters, only Andrew Bogut is a talented defender. Stephen Curry and David Lee are both below average, and Klay Thompson was only average in his rookie season last year. The jury is out on No. 7 overall pick Harrison Barnes.
Still, what they lack in defense, they’ll make up in scoring. Bogut is an excellent big man who could be on one of the All-NBA teams this season, if he stays healthy. Curry, Thompson and Barnes easily make up the best shooting 1-2-3 trio in the league, and they have a semi-decent bench to back them up.
If the Warriors force the Lakers to play their fast-paced tempo in their four matchups this season, don’t be surprised if the games are much, much closer than expected. This team has the potential to lead the league in points but could STILL miss the playoffs.
Point guard Ricky Rubio was having a great rookie season last year until he tore his ACL in a collision with Kobe Bryant in March.
If Rubio can return to form this season, the Minnesota Timberwolves are my dark-horse candidate to win the West. Forward Kevin Love is the best big-man scorer in the league and won’t be intimidated by either of the Lakers' big men defensively. Add in the bruising center Nikola Pekovic and the Wolves could be almost as talented in the paint as the Lakers.
The X-factor for Minnesota is Brandon Roy, who returns to the NBA after retiring last season from the Portland Trail Blazers. Roy says his knees feel very healthy, and if he is back to strength he is a top five player at his position. He could give the Timberwolves the guard scoring threat they desperately missed last year.
Minnesota was one of the more fun squads to watch last year. If Roy and Rubio can both stay healthy, they may be as successful as they are “fun to watch” this season.
The Denver Nuggets were part of the four-team mega-deal that brought Dwight Howard to the Lakers. While Lakers fans should be thankful that the Nuggets took part in the deal, Denver could play spoiler multiple times this season.
While Howard was the big name in the trade, Denver traded out Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington in exchange for Andre Iguodala from the Philadelphia 76ers. Iguodala may not be a superstar, but he is an All-Star and gives the Nuggets a go-to guy they really lacked.
While he struggled to score last year (he averaged just 12.4 points a game), he is capable of much more and will excel in the Nuggets' fast-paced offense. While they may not be able to stand up to the Lakers in terms of size, Denver has amassed a deep team and they continue to be underrated.
Behind the Thunder, the Lakers and the Spurs, the Nuggets are the fourth-best team in the West.