Obviously, the Lakers were constructed this past offseason to do one thing: win a championship. You don’t start adding 38-year-old two-time MVPs if you’re rebuilding. However, the Oklahoma City Thunder, who knocked the Lakers out of the postseason last year, clearly stand in L.A.’s way. The Thunder, with their star power and raw athleticism, pose a gigantic threat to the Lakers’ high-priced title hopes.
But it’s the Los Angeles Clippers that present the real problem.
The Numbers Game
So far, the numbers from this young season show that the Clippers are a more complete unit than top-heavy OKC. The Clips are 8-2 and rank second in the NBA in defensive efficiency. The Thunder (8-3) have been good stoppers, but still rate eight slots behind the Clippers on the defensive end.
Offensively, both OKC and the Clippers have generated excellent numbers. The Thunder rank third, while the Clippers are the league’s fifth-most efficient scoring outfit.
Of course, if we’re only looking at numbers, it’s probably best to mention the Clippers’ most important digits: 1-0. They easily beat the Lakers in the two teams’ only meeting this season, a 105-95 Clipper win. OKC has yet to tangle with the Lakers.
The Clippers’ status as a bigger threat to the Lakers than OKC isn’t just about numbers. It’s also about momentum.
The Thunder are searching for their bearings after the surprising trade that sent James Harden, a beloved teammate and elite offensive player, to the Houston Rockets. Now, Kevin Durant is working to pick up the playmaking slack while Russell Westbrook has been doing what he always does: trying to impose his will on the game by scoring in bunches.
The Thunder have been successful so far, but there’s no question that they’re a more vulnerable unit than they were a season ago. Westbrook is shooting just 40 percent and Kevin Martin, Harden’s replacement, is the favored target of every opponent’s game plan. Against the Golden State Warriors, for example, rookies Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes isolated on Martin and scored on four consecutive possessions.
Martin can fill it up himself, but now he represents a clear weak point in the Thunder’s defense. Teams will continue to attack him all season long.
And while the Thunder are slightly weaker and scrambling to define roles, the Clippers are surging.
The Clips bolstered their bench over the summer by adding Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and Grant Hill. Hill hasn’t played yet, but Crawford leads the Clippers in scoring and Barnes has added toughness and attitude off the bench. More importantly, DeAndre Jordan seems to have made a major leap; he’s suddenly showing the ability to score on the block and is playing with sharper focus than Clipper fans have ever seen from him.
The positive momentum doesn’t stop there, either. Eric Bledsoe, Chris Paul’s understudy, has turned himself into a disruptive force on defense. He’s putting up nearly 11 points per game in limited minutes, but his tenacity as a defender has made him a vicious attack-dog option for coach Vinny Del Negro.
All the new additions and positive growth on the Clippers’ roster has the team trending steadily upward. OKC, on the other hand, has dipped without Harden.
Besides playing better on paper and having more positive momentum than the Thunder, the Clippers also present a much bigger matchup problem for the Lakers than the Thunder do.
At the point, the Lakers are vulnerable to almost any guard with a pulse, but Chris Paul is a much tougher nut to crack than Westbrook is. Westbrook does his damage by barreling into the lane. But that’s where Dwight Howard lives. Westbrook will have no trouble blowing past Steve Nash (or whoever the Lakers trot out until he’s healthy), but he’s going to struggle as he drives into the teeth of the Lakers’ interior defense.
Paul, on the other hand, can cause some real problems for the Lakers with his brain. He’s the NBA’s best at getting to whatever spot he wants on the floor, and he knows what to do when he gets there. Usually, he ends up at the elbow or in the lane with his defender on his back. And as we’ve already established, the Lakers don’t have a player capable of denying Paul access to the areas of the floor he likes.
Once Paul penetrates, his superior intelligence and decision making will lead to one of two outcomes, both of which are bad for the Lakers. Either Paul will torture the Laker bigs with flip shots and floaters or he’ll drop dimes to Jordan and Blake Griffin if the Laker front court leaves their assignments to close out on him.
There’s nobody better than Paul at getting into the lane, and he’ll have no trouble out-thinking the Lakers’ front line once he does.
The more you look at the matchups, the more they favor the Clippers.
Bledsoe can make life hell for Nash, the Butler-Barnes-Hill combo can irritate Kobe Bryant and DeAndre Jordan might be the only center in the league athletic enough to bang (and run) with Howard.
Obviously, the Thunder present matchup problems of their own for the Lakers: nobody can guard Kevin Durant and Kendrick Perkins has always bothered Howard. But the Clippers are simply better equipped to beat their Staples Center cohabitants.
The Not-So-Lonesome, Crowded West
Look, the Western conference is like a minefield. There are probably five teams capable of making a run to the finals right now.
The Memphis Grizzlies have emerged this season, recently taking over the top spot in a prominent set of power rankings on the strength of a scary front line and newfound bench scoring.
The San Antonio Spurs just won’t die, either. They’re a threat to the Lakers until Tim Duncan hangs up his Adidas.
The Thunder are defending champs and the Clippers look flat-out nasty.
Any one of these teams, along with the Lakers, could emerge this spring. So there’s no question that the Lakers should have a healthy fear of (or at least, respect for) every one of these elite clubs.
But as it stands right now, they should probably be worrying most about the neighboring Clippers.
*All stats accurate through games played Nov. 19