If you're looking to blame someone (or more than someone) for the Los Angeles Lakers' "Extreme Makeover: Superstar Edition" this summer, you'd do well to start with the Oklahoma City Thunder. After all, it was the eventual Western Conference champions who ousted the Purple and Gold from the postseason in five games, thereby sparking the internal processes that resulted in the arrivals of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.
With those two All-Stars on board, along with the likes of Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks coming off the bench, the Lakers are (or, rather, should be) better equipped than ever to handle the NBA's youngest powerhouse.
Not that the Lakers were necessarily all that far off to begin with. L.A. only managed to win one game out of five against OKC in the playoffs, but the Lakers came closer to making a true series of it than a cursory glance might suggest.
There's no ignoring the carnage from the 119-90 trouncing in Game 1. The 16-point margin in Game 5 can be explained away as the inevitable result of the young Thunder going for the jugular against a Lakers squad that had given its all—and come up short—on tired legs in Game 4.
But Games 2, 3 and 4 all were essentially up for grabs. The Lakers squandered a seven-point lead with two minutes to play in Game 2 and a 13-point advantage with eight minutes left in Game 4. They pulled out a victory in Game 3, so it's not as though they were entirely overmatched against OKC's 20-something Big Three of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Doin' Work on Perk
What worked for L.A.? Size and pace. The Lakers succeeded when they pounded the ball inside, limited possessions and didn't allow the Thunder to run.
The addition of Dwight Howard certainly should help in this regard. As good as Andrew Bynum was as a low-post scorer, he hardly was a force to be reckoned with in that series. His numbers—16.6 points on 43.5 percent shooting, 9.4 rebounds, 5.4 free-throw attempts—were solid for most big men, but they weren't indicative of the full-on effort the Lakers had expected from their mercurial All-Star.
Some of the credit for Bynum's ineffectiveness belongs to Kendrick Perkins. Even while hobbled, Perk was able to use his size and strength to give Bynum fits in the post and, in a grander scheme, ranked among the best defensive centers in the NBA last season.
Perkins has done well enough in the past against Howard to earn his reputation as a "Dwight Stopper," though that may precede him a bit at this point. Howard's regular-season stats against Perk—16.3 points on 52.3 percent shooting, 12.6 rebounds, 8.5 free-throw attempts, 2.8 blocks—are relatively modest by Howard's own standards, albeit still superior to Bynum's.
Especially when considering postseason performance.
In 13 playoff games against Perk, Howard has piled up 18.9 points on 55.8 shooting, 14.2 rebounds, 9.0 free-throw attempts and 2.8 blocks. Not exactly shutdown-type stuff for Perkins.
That doesn't figure to favor Perkins in the future. Knee and groin injuries have slowed him down since leaving the Boston Celtics via trade in February 2011, and he's still on the mend from offseason wrist surgery.
Of course, Howard isn't exactly the picture of health himself, though he returned to full-court, five-on-five scrimmaging on Tuesday, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Times. That being said, Howard's never had the privilege of going up against Perkins' teams while surrounded by the kind of primo talent with which he'll play in L.A.
And, by necessitating playing time for Perk, Howard's mere existence should be a boon to the Lakers' defense.
As ESPN's John Hollinger (Insider access) pointed out in his OKC player profiles, Perk was a drain on the Thunder offense. It averaged 8.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Perkins on the court, while Perk himself was the second-most turnover-prone player in the NBA. He also added just 7.5 points per 48 minutes of his own to the cause.
Simply put, Perk's impact on the offensive end is so malignant that it might actually offset the good he does on defense. With Perkins on the floor, the Thunder essentially forfeit a scoring option against the Lakers and put even more pressure on their Big Three to carry the scoring load.
This is a burden that figures to grow even more onerous in light of the other "tweaks" the Lakers have made to their roster.
As big an impact as Howard's replacement of Bynum will have on L.A.'s fortunes (in relation to OKC), the Lakers' more dramatic upgrade this summer came at point guard, where they swapped out Ramon Sessions for Steve Nash. Sessions looked like a deer in the headlights against OKC this past spring, contributing a forgettable 6.3 points (on 35.3 percent shooting), 2.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.4 rebounds to L.A.'s five-game flop.
Don't expect Nash to ever find himself so flustered against any opponent, OKC included. On its own, Nash's 27.05 turnover rate—the highest of his career and the third-highest among point guards who played more than 20 minutes per game last season, per Hoopdata—would seem troubling, especially given Nash's advanced age.
But last year's Phoenix Suns squad was arguably the worst with which Nash had ever played—and he still nearly led the league in assists while playing his fewest minutes per game since his sophomore season.
Nash's career numbers against Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, including those compiled last season, point to a player who can still hold his own against the young guns taking over his position. According to Basketball-Reference, Nash has averaged 13 points (on 54.5 percent shooting), 9.4 assists and 2.7 rebounds in 13 games against Westbrook.
Not bad for a guy in his late 30s.
Granted, Westbrook's numbers are even more eye-popping, and Nash is hardly a "plus" defender. Then again, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who can keep up with a player of Westbrook's prodigious physical gifts.
And it's not as though Westbrook is the sort of lockdown defender many assume an athletic freak of his ilk would, could and should be. He allowed opposing point guards to post a collective PER of 15.7 last season (per 82games.com) and is so prone to gambling for big plays that he often leaves himself out of position when defending man-to-man.
An opponent as clever as Nash—who can handle and pass with either hand under any set of circumstances—can use Westbrook's aggressive tendencies against him. Nash may not be able to stop Westbrook, but he can wear him down by making him work on the defensive end.
At least, more so than Sessions and Steve Blake did. Just imagine plugging in Nash for Sessions on the Lakers' depth chart during last year's OKC series.
Does Nash run around like a frightened woodland creature and fuel OKC's fast break with bone-headed turnovers? Does Nash turn the ball over in crunch time?
Do Kobe and Metta World Peace even try to make plays with the game on the line? Does Nash miss wide-open shots? Does Blake see the floor in the final six-to-eight minutes of a close game?
And, do the Lakers blow multiple fourth-quarter leads as a result?
The answer to all of these questions is an emphatic "probably not."
Back to School
But the bolstering of L.A.'s chances against the Thunder is about much more than just the individual tools that either of its new stars bring to the table. It is not necessarily about the deepening of a bench that contributed a paltry 13.2 points per game opposite OKC's 30.6, though the additions of Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks should make a significant difference in that department.
Rather, it's about the system into which all of that talent, old and new, will be slotted—namely the Princeton offense.
The Lakers struggled to score and were all too easy to defend last season in large part because of a decided lack of activity on the offensive end. Too often was L.A. content to put the ball in Kobe's hands while the other four guys on the floor stood around and watched.
Those same issues were on full display against OKC, a team that knows full well the perils of "hero ball" but has the bodies to defend it effectively. Only once in five games—a 103-100 loss in Game 4—did the Lakers enter triple-digit territory.
Not that offense was L.A.'s only problem. Basketball is a two-way game, and if you're not making your opponents sweat on one end, they'll have that much more energy with which to attack you on the other.
By emphasizing spacing, ball movement and player movement, the Princeton offense will not only keep the rock moving when the Thunder come to town, but it also will open up easy opportunities and force OKC to expend more of its collective vitality to prevent the Lakers from converting.
Even these changes in personnel and scheme can't mask the fact that the Lakers are old and only getting older. Howard is two years Bynum's senior, and Jamison gives L.A. a rotation featuring no fewer than six players over the age of 32.
On the whole, though, there's no doubting that the Lakers are a much-improved outfit over last year's hodgepodge.
Meanwhile, the Thunder largely stood pat after a five-game ouster at the hands of the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. The additions of Lazar Hayward, Hasheem Thabeet and rookie Perry Jones III, along with the return of Eric Maynor from a knee injury, don't exactly smell like upgrades—even if the team should take another step forward by virtue of its young stars continuing their natural progressions.
And if the Lakers knock OKC from its perch atop the Western Conference this season, then the Thunder will have only themselves to blame, not only for setting the wheels of change in motion but also for essentially resting on their laurels while their coastal nemeses took swift action.