On the off chance there was still any question after the 2010-11 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder proved unequivocally they'd passed the Lakers in the Western Conference pecking order. Whipped past, like Russell Westbrook on the break. Six more wins in the regular season (no small figure in a 66-game schedule, and bigger than the gap between L.A. as the W.C.'s third best team and Utah in the eight spot). Then came the playoffs, when OKC romped in five games.
Don't give me any of that "Yeah, but the Lakers could have won!" stuff, either. In the NBA, when a team beats another 4-1 over a seven-game series, it's better, and usually by a lot. Period.
Of course, that Lakers team didn't have Dwight Howard. Or Steve Nash. Or bench scoring in the form of Antawn Jamison. Needless to say, the Summer of Jitch (Jim and Mitch -- feel free to go with Miim if you'd like) has changed the conversation significantly. With that in mind, how do the new-look Lakers match up with other contenders around the NBA? In an effort to froth up some preseason debate, we're chatting up bloggers around the Association, starting in OKC with our man Royce Young, proprietor of the outstanding Daily Thunder:
Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’Lakers: So what was the reaction in Oklahoma City to the Dwight trade?
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: I'm not going to go all Kevin Durant and pretend it didn't catch my attention. Because it's huge. It's unavoidable to act like this doesn't shift the balance of power toward Los Angeles. The Thunder very likely had a fairly wide open road back to the Finals next season, but now there is a legitimate road block in the way. I wouldn't say it was complete fear. Oklahoma City didn't start shaking or anything. But it was definitely attention-grabbing. The Thunder are still very good, match up well and have weapons to combat what the Lakers have, but to try and ignore what L.A. has done is silly.
RY: Jimmy Fallon asked KD and Harden about it Monday night and that was the exact thing they did.
LOL: I can see why they'd be annoyed. They're young, and don't want to look like they're concerned about anything other than themselves and their team. But how do you think Howard impacts the matchup? This is even before we get to Nash, and an improving bench for L.A.
RY: See, I thought the Nash signing was maybe a bigger deal, at least in terms of impacting the Thunder. Because nothing really changes too much for OKC. Kendrick Perkins was on the roster to defend Andrew Bynum and now he just moves to defending Dwight Howard. But Nash, he makes everybody more threatening. Pau Gasol is a fourth option, but with Nash running the controls, he's a monster, massive threat. Howard improves the Lakers defensively, no doubt. He makes them a little more versatile. But I don't think too much has changed in the way the Thunder will approach playing the Lakers. Not to say there's an advantage there now for L.A., but OKC won't have to adjust too much to match up.
Perkins has to be thankful, too. Mitch Kupchak just kept him relevant.
LOL: Mitch is a giver, there's no question.
But in many ways I agree with you about the Nash/Howard question. You can definitely argue Nash will be more transformative, but both will be very important. Looking back at the playoffs last season, the Thunder had a great deal of fourth-quarter success because they got rolling and the Lakers couldn't stop the avalanche once it started, but also because they couldn't score. Thirteen points in Game 5, 20 in Game 4, 12 in Game 2, 22 in Game 1. With Nash on board, those Q4 droughts become far less likely.
And with him on the ball, the Lakers, a plodding offensive team last year, are more dangerous to the umpteenth degree. Nash will have at his disposal Howard, the league's best P-and-R big. He'll have Gasol's versatility. He'll have Kobe Bryant who, untethered to responsibilities as the primary ball handler/shot creator, should be more efficient as a scorer. The Lakers will be able to use multiple combinations in pick and roll, since both Kobe and even Gasol (who ran a great 4/5 set with Bynum last season) can initiate as well, allowing Nash to spot up. Gasol can pick and pop, so can Jamison. But the bottom line is with Nash on the point, the Lakers shouldn't have as much trouble scoring throughout games, and particularly in the fourth, when D's tighten up and could key on Kobe.
Very important against a team like OKC, since bad trips and missed shots fuel the Thunder. The best way to stop their break is to keep it from happening in the first place.
That said, having Howard's mobility on the defensive end seems like a huge weapon, too. James Harden isn't getting to the rack as easily with Dwight there. Nor will Westbrook. Bynum was a good defender (when he wanted to be) but doesn't have the same impact.
RY: I think the biggest thing a lot of Thunder fans are holding on to is that Kobe turns 34 soon and has knee problems, Nash will be 39 next season and has back problems and Howard has his own back issues. Is this a big concern for Lakers fans? And is this core looked at as mainly having a one- or two-year window?
LOL: Yes, and probably yes.
People are definitely concerned about the age of the group. Last week at Howard's introductory news conference, Mitch Kupchak was asked if he thought this was the best starting five he's ever seen. He said it was certainly accomplished, but (half-jokingly) said he'd feel a lot better if they were all 22. No question, Kobe's age and mileage is a big deal. Nobody takes better care of his body, but the things he has to do in order to continue playing at a high level are extraordinary. Nash has been pretty healthy over the past few seasons, but is leaving the Phoenix training staff with its magic desert pixie dust. Howard is coming off surgery, Gasol and Metta World Peace are both north of 30 and Jamison is 36.
Still, I'm not as concerned as some. Howard and Nash should lighten Kobe's load, and having someone like Kobe on the wing should extend Nash's shelf life, too. As for the long-term question, I think this group has two years, then major changes come. Financially, it's hard to keep them together any longer.
So the Lakers have their core, having made huge changes this summer. OKC has been pretty quiet. How much better should people expect the Thunder to be next year?
RY: It's all part of the natural evolution and progression of the roster. They went from 23 wins to 50, to the Western Conference finals, to the NBA Finals. Each season they've grown, matured and gotten better. While the roster doesn't change much, the games of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Serge Ibaka become a little more refined and rounded. So while the Thunder didn't take any leap with a major addition (you might be surprised I'm not that pumped about Hasheem Thabeet), they will be better than last season. That's kind of the built-in plan with this roster. It's just unavoidable improvement. The question obviously is if that improvement is enough to stay on top. I don't know about that. The Lakers are darn scary on paper.
Where do the Lakers fear the Thunder most? With Howard in the middle, is Westbrook viewed as less of a threat?
LOL: I would think so. Same with Harden. The Thunder might not be a post scoring team, but if the Lakers can turn them almost exclusively into a bunch of jump shooters, they'll take their chances. Cutting off those lane drives would make a huge difference, and it's a possibility because with Howard the Lakers not just have great help at the rim, but also someone with more mobility in pick-and-roll defense. Durant is going to be Durant -- how incredible was that Olympics performance? -- but in the half court the Thunder weren't always a dynamic scoring team.
If you're Scott Brooks, how would you look to attack this new-look Lakers team?
RY: By sitting Serge Ibaka entire fourth quarters? Oh wait, that's how Brooks attacks the Miami Heat.
RY: One thing is for sure: I don't think the Thunder can deploy their favorite smallball lineups the same way anymore. Because Howard is so much more versatile and athletic, the Thunder can't really create those same big mismatches with Durant playing power forward. To a degree it'll still work and I'm sure Brooks will experiment with it, but in a lot of ways he was able to essentially bench Bynum at times by using a smaller lineup. With Howard, that's not all that possible.
I think Brooks will stick pretty traditional against the Lakers while mixing in a few quicker, more athletic lineups. Durant at the 4 is something you'll see still, but Ibaka or Nick Collison as the center on Howard probably won't happen much.
(LOL Note: This is a spectacularly good point, one that could have a huge impact on how teams attack the Lakers. Not just the Thunder, but other athletic squads like Denver or Miami. The ability to keep Howard on the floor in situations where Bynum couldn't is a very big deal for the Lakers defensively.)
Here's a random question for you that's fairly ridiculous, I realize: With this group of players, would you rather have them in The Triangle, or more traditional sets like they will be now?
LOL: I think the Princeton thing Kobe mentioned at the Olympics is perfect. The Lakers need a system. They have a bunch of really high IQ players accustomed to reading and reacting and having a certain amount of autonomy on the floor. So whether the triangle or the Princeton (which share some basic attributes and certainly an ethos), that they'll be based in a system is a positive. That said, just as it was with the triangle, half the time they probably won't run it. With the arrival of Howard particularly, if the Lakers don't use a lot of P-and-R sets, they'd be wasting a huge part of Nash's game. But the big thing: Mike Brown likely won't be on the sidelines calling a lot of plays, something the players chafed at last season until he loosened up a little.
So here's my last question, and it's a two-parter (high PER): Who finishes the regular season with more wins? And should they meet in the Western Conference finals (a given in the eyes of everyone not located in San Antonio) who wins? Let's assume a neutral court, just to keep it simple.
RY: Putting me on the spot for the last one.
LOL: Don't worry. It's August. Nobody will remember what we say here.
RY: I think the Thunder finish with more regular-season wins, largely because they're built more for it. Not that the Thunder are especially concerned with the regular season, but they'd like to get a top seed, I'm sure, especially after blowing it last season to the Spurs. And the Lakers will have their eyes completely on May and June.
So if that means taking their time with Howard's back, resting Nash on back-to-backs or limiting Kobe's minutes, the Lakers aren't likely to be pushing like crazy to win 60.
In a seven-game series, I lean toward the Lakers because they can throw caution to the wind and play it all out. What their Achilles' heel may be is health and age, but in a series of that magnitude, there won't be any holding back. I think the equalizer for the Thunder could be home court. And if OKC had it, I'd pick them in seven. But with this being a neutral court, I'm 51/49 on the side of the Lakers.
LOL: I think I agree with the regular season. The Lakers have a lot to integrate, and a great deal of incentive to preserve their health.
But in the playoffs, I think what Nash has done for them offensively, along with the improvement they'll make with Howard on the pick and roll, what should be a more efficient Kobe, and a more dangerous Gasol solves a lot of problems. On the other end, Howard's ability to cover more ground from the perimeter to the rim will allow L.A.'s other defenders to stick closer to their men on the perimeter when required, or help more aggressively when that's the play. Maybe I'm drinking the Kool-Aid, because I LOVE the Thunder as a group, but I'm taking the Lakers on the neutral floor.
Now we just sit back and see if we're right.
(Again, visit Daily Thunder for all your OKC scouting needs. Thanks again to Royce for his time.)