The Lakers rattled the Western Conference’s cage with a big offseason. What appeared to be a relatively clear path back to the Finals for the Thunder has a serious roadblock in it now. Not to mention the fact that the West is always tough and no road to the NBA Finals is ever easy.
But who are the biggest dangers to the Thunder on paper in August? Who are the teams to fear most?
Who are the top three threats to the Thunder next season?
1. Royce Young, Daily Thunder: The Lakers. The main purpose of this 3-on-3 was really just to reinforce the fact that the Lakers are really good and will be a serious challenger to the Thunder. But they have their own questions with health and age. They aren’t any kind of lock to cruise through the West, especially considering the Thunder are, you know, good.
Patrick James, Daily Thunder: The Lakers. Obviously. But the Lakers were already in this spot before the Dwight Howard trade — as soon as L.A. was able to gt Steve Nash to agree to play alongside Kobe Bryant, the Lakers became the top threat to OKC in the West. He may be old, but he knows how to play and he knows how to get the best out of his teammates. But beyond that, how much better did the Lakers really get in the short term by upgrading to Howard over Andrew Bynum? Bynum, when healthy for an entire season last year, was, what, 90 to 95 percent of what Howard is? Maybe that extra little bit is what will get the Lakers over the top. That remains to be seen. But the Howard trade has more long-term implications for the West, if he signs with the Lakers next summer, than short term, because Howard is more of a sure bet to build around in the future. But the Lakers were going to have the best chance to topple the Thunder before Howard followed in Shaq’s footsteps.
J.G. Marking, Daily Thunder: The Lakers. You can’t add a two-time MVP who was second in assists last season (10.7 a game!) despite playing with a, shall we say, less than offensively stellar Phoenix Suns team (and I don’t care how old he is, Darth Canuck doesn’t consume sugar so that he can remain ageless…darn you Mountain Dew!), AND THEN go and add the best center in the game, probably his generation, who perfectly fits into what the other four members of the Lakers need from a big man, without immediately shooting up to the #1 threat spot.
2. Young: The Spurs. They’re the Terminator of professional sports. They don’t die. Until Tim Duncan is crushed and melted, I won’t ever say the Spurs are done. Especially considering Tony Parker has quietly become one of the NBA’s undisputed top 10 players. They’re a year older than last season which means they’re OLD, but we should’ve all learned our lesson with the Spurs four years ago. You don’t write them off.
James: The Spurs. I am done doubting the Spurs when it comes to how long they can continue to be an elite team. They’ve had two rather spectacular flameouts in a row after grabbing the No. 1 seed in the West for two straight years, yes. But as long as Tim Duncan is suiting up, Gregg Popovich is on the sidelines and a quality cast of characters surrounds them and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, the Spurs belong in the discussion, no matter how old they are getting.
Marking: The Spurs. You know, I know that Bill Simmons will probably always call the Thunder the Zombie Sonics, but if you really think about it, the Zombie moniker really should go to the San Antonio Zombies at this point. I mean, does it not seem like every single time you think they’re done, that they’re too decrepid, that they simply can’t compete at that level anymore and are close to pushing up championship daisies they Just. Dont. Die. As long as Pop is coaching, Timmy is somewhat mobile, and they have something of a handful of Manu, Parker and Role Player Extraordinaires…please everyone, stop writing up the obituary for the Spurs. It only seems to make them angry. And hungry for human flesh.
3. Young: The Nuggets. Other good candidates are certainly the Grizzlies and Clippers, but the Nuggets have been close to breaking through for a few seasons and it seems the Andre Iguodala move could be something substantial for them. They still lack any kind of go-to crunch time scorer. They don’t have a player that can stand up to Durant and Westbrook in the fourth quarter. Danilo Gallinari, maybe. Ty Lawson, kind of. But with Iguodala, they’re versatile, athletic, and fast. They’re frontline of Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee could present OKC some matchup difficulties, especially if there’s an insistence to play Kendrick Perkins. Nene gave Perk great value against the Nuggets. Not so much now.
James: The Grizzlies. I thought long and hard about putting the Clippers or Nuggets in this spot, but it continues to be the Grizzlies who scare me the most after the Lakers and Spurs. Yes, they lost in the first round last year, and it’s unlikely that Zach Randolph will ever return to the lofty heights he ascended to in the 2010-11 season. But until Serge Ibaka proves he can be a consistent one-on-one post defender, Memphis’ size inside will pose problems for the Thunder — and the rest of the league, of course. And the Grizzlies are deep. The Clippers could move into this spot pretty easily over time, but until Blake Griffin can hit some free throws, score more consistently on his own and defend, I remain unconvinced.
Marking: Clippers. This might be an unpopular pick, or seem odd, but in year two of the Lob City (“Boy, I hope CP3 doesn’t leave us danging in the wind this upcoming summer in free agency) experiment, I’m legitimately worried about the Clips. For one, the Thunder always seem to lay an egg against them unless it’s at home, sometimes even at home! Secondly, they’re going to be better, like a lot better. I thought about the Nuggets or Grizzlies here, but Blake and Chris Paul scare me more than Iggy and Galinari, or Randolph and other Gasol do, but luckily Vinny Del Negro is still the Clips coach so #3 is about the highest their ceiling is. I mean, we’re still talking about the Clippers after all.