The Los Angeles Lakers shook up the landscape of the NBA again when they traded for Dwight Howard last week.
The deal will immediately make the Lakers legitimate NBA title contenders and in some people’s eyes, the NBA title favorites already.
The Lakers will have to go through the Oklahoma City Thunder though. The defending Western Conference champs didn’t make any big moves this summer simply because they didn’t have to. The Lakers have improved their roster leaps and bounds from last year but the Thunder are still more than capable of matching up with them.
Here’s a look at how the matchup will breakdown.
The Lakers’ biggest weakness the past few seasons was the point guard position. They went out and got Steve Nash this summer which will drastically improve that area for them. Nash will turn 39 next year but is still playing at an elite level. Last year with Phoenix, he averaged 12.5 points and 10.7 assists per game in just 31.6 minutes per game. He also matched a career-high shooting .532 percent from the field and also shot .390 percent from three.
Old age is not the ideal weapon to throw at OKC’s Russell Westbrook who is one of the best athletes in the NBA. Westbrook is coming off a great season himself where he was fifth in the NBA averaging 23.6 points per game. It’s safe to say Nash will have a pretty difficult time staying in front of Westbrook.
Westbrook will have a huge edge in terms of athleticism but Nash can make up for it some with his basketball savvy. Westbrook has struggled somewhat in matchups vs. experienced point guards but in the long run, Westbrook will still have the advantage here. Nash could outplay him in a half of a game, but for the full 48, the advantage goes to Westbrook.
The Lakers have always been used to having a huge advantage at this position with Kobe Bryant. That may not be the case against the Thunder though. James Harden was the Sixth Man of the Year last season, made the 2012 Olympic team and is very much closing in on the heels of Kobe.
It’s not fair to say that Harden will have an advantage over Kobe yet in this matchup but it’s definitely closer than some people would think. The Thunder made Kobe really work for his points when they played in the postseason. Kobe had a pretty good series averaging 31.2 points per game and 10.2 free throw attempts per game but the Thunder still did a good job containing him.
Thabo Sefolosha is an elite perimeter defender that has no problem guarding Kobe one-on-one. The Thunder would be able to rely on using Sefolosha on Kobe a lot in this matchup if they could count on playing a lot of small lineups like last year. But that will be less likely with the Lakers’ size for next season.
Harden will have to match up with Kobe even more so than usual. Kobe should see a decline in the advantage he has over Harden in this matchup and there may even be some games where Harden can match Kobe.
The Thunder will just about always have the advantage at this position. No one in the NBA can slow down Kevin Durant. Metta World Peace used to be his kryptonite but not anymore. Durant averaged 26.8 points and shot .516 percent from the field vs. the Lakers last year in the playoffs.
Durant even proved that not even LeBron can really slow him down when he averaged 30.6 points per game in the Finals and shot .548 percent.
The Lakers will have a very tough time slowing down Durant and will have to weather his storm. That’s the biggest problem for the Lakers in this matchup. Even though they have improved their roster, they haven’t necessarily improved it in a way to slow down OKC’s big three on offense.
Durant and Westbrook should have less success driving into the paint with Howard now lurking but they are jump shooters first anyway, and that’s how they beat L.A. last year.
Now we’re getting to the big men where the Lakers will have the advantage. At power forward we will be seeing a lot of Pau Gasol vs. Serge Ibaka. Ibaka finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season but still has some issues guarding good post-up players like Gasol.
Gasol was not very assertive last year though especially against the Thunder as he only averaged 12.9 points per game against them in the playoffs. Gasol looked much better in the Olympics but it isn’t a guarantee he will carry over that level of play back to the NBA.
Ibaka seems to always play big against the Lakers too. He can get his midrange shot easily with Gasol matched up with him and averaged 4.0 blocks per game vs. the Lakers in their playoff series.
Gasol is expected to be more comfortable with the Lakers next season in their Princeton offense and with Nash. Ibaka should improve too though and will be able to slow down Gasol again.
This is where we see the biggest change. Howard is far and away the best center in the NBA right now. It’s easy to forget this since most of our recent memory with him is how he ruined his image in Orlando.
Howard is impossible for almost any team to match up with except maybe the Thunder. Kendrick Perkins has always had the reputation as being one of the few guys in the NBA who could guard Howard one-on-one. While this may not be exactly true it should still limit the Lakers’ advantage over the Thunder at this spot.
The key with the Thunder vs. the Lakers is they don’t have to double anyone. The Thunder never had to double anyone last season until they got to the NBA Finals and ended up stuck with Harden guarding LeBron in the post. That’s a huge reason why they lost and a huge reason why they got that far is that they are able to match up with every team man-to-man.
This is why the Thunder should still be considered the favorites in the West. The Lakers got better but not quite enough to dethrone the Thunder, at least without seeing them play yet.
The Thunder and Lakers will play for the first time next season Friday, Dec. 7 on ESPN. Howard is expected to miss the beginning of the season but could be back in time for that game. If he isn’t, the next meeting between the Thunder and Lakers will be Jan. 11.