4 Sleeper Western Conference Teams L.A. Lakers Should Take Much More Seriously
Heading into the 2012-13 season, the Western Conference was thought to be a two-team race between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder for who would win the conference and ultimately represent the conference in the Finals.
Through the first three weeks of the season, however, the conference has proven to be much more competitive than originally thought. Several teams are making an early claim to be the conference's best team while the Lakers remain a work in progress through the early changes that have defined their early season struggles.
So while the Lakers are still a respected team who is very much capable of living up to the expectations set for them before the season, they're also not in a position to simply look down on the rest of the teams looking to take them down and claim inherent superiority.
No, there are several teams who are proving to be challengers for the Lakers now (and will be even when the Lakers do find their stride). These are teams that few were talking about when the season began but who we should definitely be talking about now. And not just us, as fans and analysts, but the Lakers themselves.
These are teams that the Lakers need to move from sleeper status to teams that need to be looked at as serious threats to their ability to advance as far as they should.
The Memphis Grizzlies
There may not be a team better constructed to battle this specific Laker team than the Memphis Grizzlies.
In the frontcourt, they have Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to match up with the Lakers' duo of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. Randolph is the type of bruising low post player who can give Pau issues in the post while possessing enough range on his jumper to take him away from the basket and neutralize his height and length advantages.
Meanwhile, Marc Gasol has the size and strength to bother Dwight Howard in the post defensively that can limit his effectiveness. He also has the craftiness on offense to give Howard issues on the other end of the floor.
Gasol's ability to initiate offense from the high post and skilled post game is the exact type of style that can draw Howard away from the rim and occupy him enough that he must make difficult choices between defending his own man and being a primary helper.
On the perimeter, the Grizzlies also have three players that can really give the Lakers issues.
Tony Allen has long been one of the better defenders to put on Kobe Bryant. Allen is quick, strong and relentless and will not give an inch when defending Kobe. Allen's ability to defend without fouling is also key as he can likely stay on the floor long enough to match up with Kobe for as long as it takes to limit him.
In Mike Conley, the Grizzlies possess the type of quick point guard that can give the Lakers fit on both ends of the floor. His playmaking in isolation and in the pick-and-roll can make the Lakers guards work on defense and compromise their help schemes. Meanwhile, his ability to pressure the ball defensively will make Steve Nash (and company) work hard to initiate the Lakers' sets.
Rudy Gay is the wild card for Memphis as he has a polished offensive game combined with excellent athleticism to give Metta World Peace issues. He can use his quickness to attack World Peace off the dribble and has enough range on his jumper to make him work on the perimeter as well. Defensively, Gay has the ability to help in the post and still recover to contest jumpers on the perimeter and his length can be a factor on the backboards too.
When you combine these players with the mental and physical toughness the Grizzlies possess, their ball-hawking nature on defense, and a good enough bench to outplay the Lakers reserves, this is a team that must be taken seriously by the Lakers even though they weren't picked to be one of the West's top teams.
The Los Angeles Clippers
The cross town Clippers were thought to be one of the better teams heading into the season but few thought they'd actually be better than the Lakers. But, three weeks into the campaign, the Clippers are showing that they are true contenders and a team that the Lakers cannot take lightly.
The Clippers have all the ingredients to make this Laker team work.
In Chris Paul they have an excellent point guard that can make Steve Nash work on both sides of the ball. Paul's ability to run the pick-and-roll will create issues for Nash by making him fight through screens. Paul's isolation ability means that Nash will have to defend on an island and that's not one of his strengths. Defensively, Paul is a brilliant with his ball pressure and will make Nash work to get the ball up court and initiate the Lakers' sets.
In the frontcourt, the Clippers have an athletic tandem that will make the Lakers' duo of Gasol and Howard work hard to protect the paint and effectively rebound the ball. Griffin has typically been bothered by Gasol's length, but his ever improving mid-range jumper makes him a more complete player that can take Gasol away from the rim and then attack him with his superior quickness.
DeAndre Jordan has size, length and athletic ability that rivals (or, at this point maybe even exceeds) Howard's. His evolving post game has the potential to make Howard work on defense and his own defensive game is sure to give Howard issues on the other end.
What should really make the Lakers nervous is the Clippers' bench. Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe offer a combination of offensive explosiveness and defensive ability to take over games. Add to them Matt Barnes and Grant Hill and the Clippers bring two more versatile forwards that the Lakers don't have good matchups for.
All in all, the Clippers are deep, athletic, smart and hungry to prove they're better than their in-arena rivals.
The Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs, like the Lakers, have a mostly new team that is looking to find their stride and be competitive in a crowded West race. And though they have had their struggles in the first three weeks of the season, there is reason for optimism that they can regain their form and be a team that makes noise through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs.
One reason for optimism is that Dirk Nowitzki has yet to play a game and the Mavs, through 11 games, have just as good a record as the Lakers.
Dirk remains one of the game's best players and his impact on the game is such that he instantly changes the Mavs' prospects once he sees the floor. His shooting, rebounding and ability to be an offensive focal point while being a low turnover player translate to issues for a Laker team that doesn't have a great player to guard him one-on-one over the course of the game.
Furthermore, the Mavs also have a nice backcourt that is both young and talented to match up with the Lakers' duo of Kobe and Nash.
In the first game of the season we already saw how well Darren Collison could match up with Steve Nash and the issues he could give him. Collison attacked Nash on both sides of the ball and didn't let up all night. Offensively, he raced the ball up court and made Nash defend him in space. Defensively, he pressured Nash full court and disrupted his offense in the process.
O.J. Mayo has always had a rivalry with Kobe but this is the year where his game has taken a large enough step forward to really give Kobe fits. Mayo is showing consistency with his outside shot and is using that as a set up for his off the dribble game.
At this point in his career, Kobe is no longer the every play defensive stopper of his youth, and having Mayo go at him consistently has the chance of either wearing Kobe down or yielding enough points to give the Mavs a boost.
When you add in other talented players like Shawn Marion (whose defense remains top shelf), Vince Carter, Rodrigue Beaubois, Chris Kaman and Brandan Wright, the Mavs have depth that can test the Lakers should they match up down the road.
The Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves have little big-game experience and are working through a variety of early season issues that they need to sort out. Kevin Love has only just returned from a hand injury, Ricky Rubio is still recovering from his ACL injury, and there are several new players that need to be integrated onto a roster with high hopes this season.
But, over time, these issues will only improve and at this moment the Wolves are showing that they are a team not only capable of making the playoffs but of making noise once they're there.
Even without Ricky Rubio, the 'Wolves have two capable point guards in Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barrea that offer a variety of offensive skills that can threaten the Laker defense. Both are good in the pick-and-roll and both have range on their jumpers to stretch out the defense.
Up front, Kevin Love is simply one of the best players in the league and has the type of unique game that can really cause the Lakers fits. Love can score from beyond the arc, work in isolation and even score in the post with an ever improving post game. Add this to his tremendous work on the offensive glass and Love can give both Gasol and Howard issues if matched up against either.
Joining Love in the frontcourt are two international players who can also cause matchup issues. Andrei Kirilenko's combo forward game allows him to work off the dribble, shoot with range or play inside with equal effectiveness.The Lakers don't have a single player who matches up well with him and if he's on his game he will be a problem.
Then there's Nikola Pekovic, whose brute strength and rugged style of play can do damage in the paint on both ends of the court.
This team is talented, deep and well coached. And while they're not as talented at the top of their roster as the Lakers, they certainly are a team to contend with and should not be overlooked simply because they lack experience.