Who Is Right About the 2012-13 L.A. Lakers' Ultimate Fate, NBA GMs or Las Vegas?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterOctober 22, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 21:  Dwight Howard #12 (L) and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers talks as they warm up to play the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center on October 21, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The growing consensus among people inside and outside the NBA seems to be that ownership of the 2012-13 Larry O'Brien Trophy will be decided by the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat.

Which of those teams is a better bet, though, remains a topic of vigorous debate. In the latest GM Survey, 70 percent of league executives pegged LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat to defend their title.

Las Vegas appears to have other ideas, though. According to Vegas Insider, the reloaded Lakers are two-to-one favorites to snag the 17th championship in franchise history.

Both parties have picked the eventual winner correctly prior to four of the last six seasons.

So who should you trust?

The short answer: go with the guys in the front office. There's plenty to be said for the basketball acumen of people who shape the NBA's rosters, as opposed to that of those who crunch numbers for casinos in a city whose contributions to the league schedule are typically restricted to hosting the Summer League.

But going with the GMs' pick here has little to do with the predictive capacity of suits. After all, someone among them picked Kevin Durant as the "player [who] makes the most of limited natural ability."

Frankly, you don't need to be Miss Cleo or John Hollinger (though wouldn't that be a weird pairing?) to figure out that the Heat are the team to beat this season. Last I checked, LeBron James is still the best player in basketball and has yet to bolt South Beach for greener pastures. He's coming off a historic run in which he became the only man not named Michael Jordan to be an NBA MVP, a Finals MVP, a league champion and an Olympic gold medalist in the same calendar.

Better yet, he's just entering his prime, with his 28th birthday coming up at the end of December. With his role in Miami now better defined than ever (more on that later) and his post game expanded to include a Kareem-esque sky hook, LeBron may well be on track for his best season yet.

Which is saying something, since he's been the best player on the planet for the last half-decade or so.

James aside, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh remain on Miami's roster. Both carry significant injury risk into the season after ending the previous campaign banged-up, and shifting into more complementary roles on a full-time basis might not be so easy.

But the Heat were so good in their small-ball arrangement down the stretch this past spring that those concerns could wind up by the wayside before long. Gone are the days when Erik Spoelstra had to tinker and toy with his lineups to figure out how to get his "Big Three" to play together effectively.

The only "problem" for Coach Spo? Determining how many minutes to allot Ray Allen, whose superb ability to knock down corner threes only figures to make Miami's unorthodox offense that much more difficult for opposing defenses to inhibit.

Better yet, the Heat were able to poach Allen from the Boston Celtics, who stand as the only feasible challenger to Miami's throne atop the Eastern Conference among a relatively feeble field of combatants. This year's C's squad appears deeper and more talented (on paper, anyway) than the group that held a 3-2 series lead on Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Though it's worth mentioning that Bosh missed the first four games of that series with an abdominal injury and played all of 14 minutes in Game 5. And, of course, that the 2012-13 Heat also look to be a better team on paper than they were last time they hit the floor in a meaningful game.

All of which is to say, the Heat's path through the East to the Finals is relatively clear.

The same can't be said for the Lakers. They must first contend with the reigning Western Conference champions, the Oklahoma City Thunder, who ousted them from the second round of the 2012 playoffs in five games. OKC's roster remains largely unchanged from last season, though such stagnation of names shouldn't matter so long as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka continue to improve.

Better health for Eric Maynor and Kendrick Perkins will only bolster the Thunder's outlook, as will the tantalizing talents of rookie Perry Jones III.

Even if OKC should falter—for Harden-related reasons or otherwise—the Lakers must still beware of a deep crop of contenders out West. The San Antonio Spurs appeared prepared to run away with the 2012 title before the Thunder finally figured them out in the Western Conference Finals. The Clippers should be better by virtue of having paired Chris Paul and Blake Griffin for a full year, along with the offseason bolstering of their bench. 

Don't sleep on the Denver Nuggets, either. They pushed the Purple and Gold to seven games last season with an frenetic, uptempo style with which the Lakers struggled to keep pace.

The Nuggets look like an even better team this time around, with Ty Lawson taking another step toward All-Star status and Andre Iguodala arriving in the Mile High City by way of the Dwight Howard deal.

And the Memphis Grizzlies, with the dynamic duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, might be the only team in basketball with the size and skill up front to truly challenge LA's All-Star combo of Howard and Pau Gasol.

Realistically, then, the odds of the Lakers getting to the Finals, much less winning the title, should be slimmer than those of the Heat on account of stiffer competition. Should the Lakers survive the onslaught, they'd likely face a much-better-rested Miami team that's been there and done that as a unit.

Because, as overwhelming as LA's sheer talent may be, it's going to require some time and patience for the parts to fit together into a cohesive whole. The Lakers' four stars seem to complement one another more naturally than the Heat's three did upon arrival. There were times during Dwight's Laker debut on Sunday when the offense looked unstoppable, with each of LA's "Fab Four" finding easy shots on account of the others commanding substantial defensive attention.

So, too, did the defense appear passable, if not impressive, at times. Howard's mere presence as a rim protector led to many an altered shot and allowed LA's "veteran" legs on the perimeter to gamble a bit for turnovers without fear of yielding easy baskets...

Some of the time, anyway. There were still occasions on that end of the floor wherein the Lakers looked old and out of sync. The same goes for the offense, which had its moments of awkwardness as players "overdeferred" to one another while working their way through the still-foreign Princeton schematics.

These adjustments, along with an unimpressive bench, won't sort themselves out on their own. There's much work to be done by Mike Brown and his staff to determine how best to utilize the stacked deck at their disposal. It's entirely possible that, in due course, the Lakers will be an unstoppable behemoth by the time mid-April of 2013 rolls around and the games actually actually mean something.

But nobody knows that just yet. Nobody knows how well (or if) the Lakers squad will come together, how they'll measure up against the rest of the West and, furthermore, how their more conventional arrangement will fare against Miami's LeBron-centric attack.

Whereas, we already know what the Heat are capable of. They've won a title with their core group and appear primed to do so again with an improved roster and solidified system. If anything, the Heat are the safe (if not the best) pick to win it all.

So why, then, would Vegas and the GMs differ in their opinion?

Well, for one, sports executives (NBA GMs included) tend to be risk-averse. Plenty have been known to gamble on high-risk, high-reward deals, but, for the most part, they'll go for the known quantity over the enigma.

Here, the Heat are the obvious choice for GMs. They're the safe pick for people who usually try to err on the side of caution.

The city of Las Vegas itself may be better known for bad bets and failed gambles, but that certainly doesn't hold for the oddsmakers. They, too, are charged with setting and adjusting betting lines in such a way as to ensure that the casinos for which they work will profit.

In this case, though, Sin City's selection of the Lakers probably has at least something to do with proximity. The drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas typically ranges anywhere between four and seven hours, depending on traffic and however leaden the foot of the driver may be. Cheap flights between the two cities are also quite common, even on short notice.

As such, Vegas is, has long been and likely always will be LA's designated playground. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, 26 percent of the town's tourists hail from Southern California, thereby rendering Angelenos and their geographic compatriots the plurality of Sin City trippers.

Chances are, a good number of those folks are Lakers fans and, chances are, a solid contingent of those Lakers fans placed bets on their team to win the title.

In that case, it wouldn't exactly be a surprise if the Lakers got more action at Vegas sports books than any other NBA team this summer, particularly since the Dwight Howard trade.

Remember, Vegas' job isn't to predict a champion, but to make money off those who think they can. The GMs, on the other hand...well, they're just answering an anonymous survey that has absolutely no bearing on their respective jobs.

They may not all understand money as well as bookies do, but they probably know a thing or two about the NBA.

Just a hunch. 


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