It’s been roughly 12 hours since word broke that Dwight Howard had been traded and “OKC” is still trending on Twitter. No, not because he was traded to the Thunder. It was because most everyone’s first thought after hearing about the Howard heading to the Lakers, after first saying, “Holy crap, so that’s Kobe, Nash, Gasol AND Howard!?!” was if it meant the Lakers were better than the team that eliminated them last year.
Are the Lakers now the Western favorite? Are the Thunder now underdogs? Does Oklahoma City need to do something to catch up?
(It’s kind of cool, really. You can’t do something in the West without wondering if it gets you any closer to the Thunder. Respect.)
But here’s the shorthand of this: The Lakers have improved as much as any team this offseason. They’re better than the team OKC mostly breezed through in five games last postseason. They were good then, got better with the addition of Steve Nash and now are downright scary with Dwight Howard. The Lakers are for real, for real.
However: The Thunder are still very, very good. And they still match up well with the Lakers.
Kendrick Perkins should send Mitch Kupchak a fruit basket or an iTunes gift card for keeping him relevant for the next few years. There was all that chatter about amnestying him, especially with the league’s apparent shift to smallball and speed. That day might come at some point still, but not anytime in the near future. Perk has always been something of a Dwight Stopper, a guy that frustrates Howard and won’t let him physically dominate a game. Howard isn’t as much a threat on the block as Andrew Bynum is, but Perk’s job and role remain unchanged: Stop the Laker big man.
Still, the Lakers are an improved version of last year’s team. They’re better defensively, mainly because they just added the best defensive player in basketball. They have all-world playmaking point guard in Steve Nash. Really, just stop right there and that’s a frightening team. Nash throwing lobs to Howard and running pick-and-roll is already enough. Then add Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and you have probably the best starting unit of any team in the league.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that the Thunder’s road back to the Finals just became more difficult.
Though while most will crown the Lakers the Western favorite, the Thunder remain in a more-than-solid position. But there are two viewpoints here.
The optimistic side: Kobe Bryant is about to turn 34, has played more than 50,000 minutes and more than 1,100 NBA games. Steve Nash will turn 39 next season, has a terrible back and a ton of mileage. Dwight Howard’s back even remains a question mark. And Pau Gasol, well, Pau Gasol will likely remain the odd man out as the national media complains about his lack of touches.
Don’t forget: OKC still has Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. If you wanted to make a case that that foursome was better than Nash, Kobe, Gasol and Howard, I wouldn’t argue with you. And OKC has a better batch of bit players in Nick Collison, Eric Maynor and Thabo Sefolosha.
Also, remember: The coach of the Lakers is Mike Brown.
The doubter side: The Lakers have the best starting unit in the league, the league’s best big man and one of the most offensively gifted power forwards in the world as their fourth option. Plus, if you think he’s getting frozen out, remember, Steve Nash doesn’t allow people to be frozen out.
Yes, they’re a little old. A little worn. But you can bet both Kobe and Nash are going to be some kind of rejuvenated with this remade contender. And it only takes one season. The Lakers might not have a solid long-term plan in place, but their plan for 2012-13 looks mighty fine.
I think you know which side I lean. If I’m picking the Western winner right now, I still lean with the Thunder. They won the West last year with a roster mostly under the age of 25 and natural evolution says they should be even better this season. Crowning the Lakers now is way premature, but they will certainly be the sexy Western Conference pick. The trade is fresh, we’re all staring at a stocked full Laker roster and left wondering how anyone competes with that. But I feel like right now KD and the Thunder are like Mr. White talking to Gus in the SuperLab. “What did you expect me to do? Simply roll over?”
The Thunder aren’t rolling over. The road is longer and tougher now, but nothing is finished. You don’t win championships in August.
Here are five other side thoughts:
1. My first thought: Oh, so this is why the Thunder signed Hasheem Thabeet. Makes so much sense now. (For those that sarcasm is completely lost on, that was a bit of sarcasm.)
2. Obviously acquiring Howard is an incredible upgrade, but let’s not act like Andrew Bynum was some terrible player. Honestly, the acquisition of Nash still scares me a little more just because he’s going to utilize Laker weapons that haven’t been utilized in the past. Namely, Pau Gasol.
3. The Laker bench: Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison, Jordan Hill, Christian Eyenga, Andrew Goudelock, Robert Sacre, Darius Johnson-Odom. I’ll just leave that there. Oh yeah, and two of their best players are 34 and 39, and battling chronic injuries. I’ll leave that there too.
4. What Howard does for the Lakers so much more than Bynum is gives them the ability to handle OKC’s small lineups. Howard is more versatile and athletic, so the Thunder can’t run out their smallball sets to get Howard off the floor in the way they did with Bynum last season. The Thunder still should have a major edge in transition over the Lakers. LA’s strength will be in the halfcourt, both offensively and defensively, but OKC will have the ability to run the Lakers to death.
5. My absurdly way-too-early-pick if these teams met in a seven-game series? Thunder in seven.