Dec 31, 2011; Oklahoma City; OK, USA; Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash (13) drives to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

Will Steve Nash having offensive freedom make LA Lakers tougher for OKC Thunder?

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

The Los Angeles Lakers made themselves into legitimate NBA title contenders with the moves they made this offseason acquiring Steve Nash then Dwight Howard. Nash and Howard will join Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in L.A. giving the Lakers one of the best starting units in all of basketball.

As is always the case when personnel changes of this magnitude take place, there will be a learning curve for the team to mesh. It shouldn’t be too difficult as it looks like all of the pieces will fit together nicely for the Lakers. But players like Nash and Kobe will now be playing a slightly different role than they have been used to in the past few seasons.

“The way that we’ll put it together, Steve’s going to have an opportunity — he’s going to quarterback the team — and so he’s going to have an opportunity to come down the floor every possession and in early offense play pick-and-roll if he wants to,” head coach Mike Brown told ESPN Los Angeles. “It’s up to him, based on where he decides to take the ball or a call that he makes or an action that he does, it’s up to him to get us into some of the looks of the Princeton offense.

“So again, with him quarterbacking, or making that decision, he’ll still have a chance to get the ball back after he moves or after bodies move. I don’t want to completely give away what we’re trying to do, but in a nutshell, he will have an opportunity to play pick-and-roll at the beginning of almost every play set coming down the floor in early offense. And if not, he can also choose to get to some of the looks out of the Princeton by making a pass or doing an action or doing a call or whatever.”

From their new offense to their new point guard, the Lakers will definitely have a pretty different look to their team next season. Will it mean they will be a tougher out for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs next season?

Overall, the Lakers do look like they have improved a ton on paper from last season. Nash and Howard are certainly upgrades but how will Kobe handle taking on a less dominant role in the offense next season?

The Lakers lost to the Thunder in five games in the second round of the playoffs last season with Kobe averaging 31.2 points per game while shooting .426 percent from the field. The Thunder were able to hold him in check by playing him straight up for most of the series with Thabo Sefolosha or James Harden.

Kobe had some big games in the series, scoring 36, 38 and then 42 in the final three games but the Thunder were okay with Kobe playing that role. The Lakers were at their best when more players were involved on the offense.

That’s where Nash comes into play. Nash has been one of the best passers in the NBA for the last decade and still is even at the age of 39. He finished second in the NBA in assists per game last season and should provide the Lakers with a more balanced attack for next season.

The Thunder won’t see the same Lakers team they saw last year in the playoffs, one that was predictable and relatively easy to matchup with. Kobe won’t be carrying the load by himself and that alone will make the Lakers a tougher out for the Thunder.

The biggest challenge will be Russell Westbrook’s. Westbrook will have the assignment of matching up with Nash and slowing him down. Against the Thunder last season, Nash averaged 10.7 points and 8.0 assists per game against the Thunder and shot just 48 percent from the field and 30 percent from three.

Westbrook is one of the best athletes in the NBA, completely capable of harassing Nash for 48 minutes when they are matched up. While Nash will provide the Lakers’ offense with more flow for most of next season, that flow will be interrupted and choppier when Westbrook is the one guarding him.

Westbrook isn’t the most sound defender in the NBA as he gambles quite often on defense. Nash will burn him on backdoor passes and savvy offensive maneuvers a few times when these teams play but for 48 minutes, Westbrook should have the edge.

The point is the Lakers will have to alter what they are doing on offense a lot when they play the Thunder compared to when they play the rest of the league. That starts with the matchup of Nash vs. Westbrook.

One of the greatest strengths of this Thunder team is that they force their will on a game more so than any other team in the league because they are more talented and more athletic than almost anyone else. The Lakers may have gotten better from last season but they haven’t changed this fact.

We will have to wait and see to totally understand what to expect from a Thunder-Lakers matchup. It’s hard to imagine Kobe on a basketball floor deferring to a dominant ball handler like Nash.

The time for the Lakers to beat the Thunder with Kobe shooting 25-plus times per game is no more. With Nash playing the role of “quarterback” it has to give the Lakers a better shot to top OKC though.

Tags: Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers Oklahoma City Thunder Russell Westbrook Steve Nash

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