Oct.1, 2012, 2012; El Segundo, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) and Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) during media day at the Los Angeles Lakers Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Are the LA Lakers less of a threat to the OKC Thunder if team is still Kobe’s?

Kobe Bryant had some interesting comments at the Los Angeles Lakers’ media day Monday. Kobe was asked if he felt like he was “passing the baton” off to Dwight Howard and if this was still his team. Kobe said he was “passing the baton” to Dwight but also made it very clear that the Lakers were still “his team.”

This kind of attitude from Kobe is potentially very good news for the Oklahoma City Thunder and anyone else who might have to get by the Lakers this coming season.

When the Lakers acquired Howard and Steve Nash this summer, they had truly put together a super team. Adding Howard and Nash with Kobe and Pau Gasol immediately makes the Lakers much better than they were last season and gives them one of the best starting fives (on paper) in the NBA.

The real reason the Lakers should be considered NBA title favorites next season is because of Dwight Howard much more than because of Kobe Bryant. Howard is quite possibly the most valuable basketball player you can put on an NBA floor right now. If you forget about all of the drama this past year in Orlando, you’ll remember that he affects a game defensively more than anyone else in the league. He is efficient on offense and rebounds as well as anyone. He made a roster that included Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis as his forwards a perennial top defense in the league.

Now let’s move on to Steve Nash. Because Andrew Bynum is coming off such a great season and Howard off back surgery, a case can be made that the upgrade to Howard from Bynum may not be too significant (a couple of wins in the regular season). Nash has become the underrated addition by the Lakers this summer. Nash will be 39 this season but is still an elite point guard. He is one of the best pick-and-roll players in NBA history and paired with Howard, could throw him back to his days running one of the best pick-and-rolls ever like he did with Amare Stoudemire in Phoenix.

Kobe can only get in the way of all this. His next great challenge is to change his game to fit his new teammates, not to stand pat and act like he’s still top dog in L.A. Kobe doesn’t exactly have the greatest history with this though. He basically ran the most dominant center ever out of L.A. in 2004 because he wanted to be the unquestioned alpha dog. He’s also coming off a season in which he did so much for the Lakers on offense playing 38.5 minutes per game, attempting 23.0 shots per game (third highest ever in his career) and having a usage rate of 33.0 (second highest ever in career) all at the age of 33 (now 34).

Change is necessary for Kobe next season if the Lakers are going to truly succeed and that change needs to be drastic. The biggest obstacle for the Lakers will of course be the defending Western Conference champion Thunder.

The Thunder had no problem matching up with the Lakers last season mainly because they never had to double-team anyone. Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden played Kobe straight up, Serge Ibaka locked up Gasol and Kendrick Perkins handled Bynum. The Thunder will come into next year with the same philosophy except now Perkins will be matched up with his old nemesis in Howard and Russell Westbrook with Nash (who he outplayed in their regular season matchups last season).

On paper, the matchups have gotten tougher for the Thunder. But the paper also says Kobe needs to defer more than ever now. Kobe really struggled vs. the Thunder last season. In three regular season games vs. OKC last season, he went 7-for-24, 7-for-25 and 9-for-26 from the field. In the playoffs, Kobe was better averaging 31.2 points per game vs. the Thunder but still only shot .426 percent from the field.

Kobe saying the Lakers are still his team tells us that he is still going to be the “one” with the ball in his hands in clutch situations. Kobe of course has the reputation of being a great closer but stats say he is more average than great at this. Who is great though? Steve Nash.

Maybe Kobe does learn how to defer some more next season and he coexists pretty well with Howard and Nash but there is still one time of the game when we know Kobe isn’t deferring. Kobe will have the ball in his hands late, playing isolation basketball and hoisting bad shots over defenders that can now check him more easily just like he always has. The best play for the Lakers then will be bad misses and air balls that Howard and Gasol can clean up. The play they should be running late is high pick-and-rolls with the ball in Nash’s hands and Howard rolling to the rim.

We won’t know for certain how the new-look Lakers are until the season starts (just a few weeks away now). The Lakers aren’t winning a title though with Kobe still thinking he is “the man” on this team. Not when it should be Howard or Nash instead.

The Thunder don’t have to worry yet.

Tags: Dwight Howard Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers Oklahoma City Thunder Steve Nash

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