When you trade for one of the best point guards ever and the best active center in basketball in subsequent months, it tends to get people's attention. Having done so, adding Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to the already formidable twosome of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Los Angeles Lakers are now firmly ensconced on everybody's radar once again.
So, Welcome to Loud City and Silver Screen And Roll decided to do a little analytical exchange to see how both sides of what now appears to be the Western Conference's clear 1 and 1A teams see things. What follows is J.A. Sherman's responses to my Lakers-tinted questions. You can find the return here.
1. With two blockbuster trades, the Los Angeles Lakers seem poised to become OKC's chief rival in the upcoming season. What was the OKC reaction to the trades? Is there any fear/anxiety that the Lakers might be able to ruin what looked to be a cake walk back to the NBA Finals? Or is the mentality more of a "bring it on" approach?
Since you guys have followed Kobe Bryant for the entirety of his career and know how he tends to treat "rivalries," hopefully you will respect the basic attitude of the Thunder after the Dwight Howard trade was announced. When Durant and Harden stopped by Jimmy Fallon after the Olympics, Fallon asked them what they thought about the Howard trade. This was their response:While some might consider such a response a slight, to me it underscores the old-school mentality the Thunder have toward their opponents, an attitude that Kobe has always exhibited. In fact Durant has said several times that when a series is going on, he will not pay any respects to his opponents because he does not want to give them any sort of hand-hold. Cede nothing.In the past, I think you could have made the argument that the Thunder were intimidated by the Lakers. They looked at Kobe, the banners, the L.A. atmosphere, and they knew that they had to get to a place where they could share the same court with a superior team. Now though, the Thunder youngsters are unafraid. Perhaps they will not always be better than L.A., but the mystique is gone. Now, the Thunder guys just want challenges so that they can continue to prove themselves. They are no longer afraid. "Bring it on," indeed.
2. How well equipped do you think the Lakers' roster is to deal with OKC's unique blend of youth and athleticism? Has Dwight Howard been able to deter the relentless attacking style of Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the past, or do they continue to drive unabated no matter who waits for them in the paint?
I actually think the Lakers roster is actually well-built to deal with the Thunder's team construct. With Nash, they finally have a perimeter shooter who will make the Thunder pay when they get sloppy with their perimeter defense (which is often). With Nash, the Lakers have a playmaker who knows how to move and shift around defenses like a jujitsu master, using OKC's own athleticism against them. In Howard, the Lakers have a dominating presence to occupy OKC's lane stuffers, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. In Howard, the Lakers have a means to keep Westbrook and Durant away from the rim. the Thunder will be forced to adjust as appropriate.All that said, the one guy who really makes the difference is the one guy who has failed to make a difference for the Lakers in these past 2 seasons. There is only one Laker for whom the Thunder have no answer, and that is Pau Gasol. Gasol's ability to pass out of the post, shoot from the perimeter, and post up from the free throw line disrupts just about everything the Thunder try to do on defense. Serge Ibaka, as talented as he is, still does not know how to play great post defense or play in open space. Gasol is and should be a Thunder killer.
However, you all know the truth. Gasol has all but disappeared in the climactic moments of the playoffs. We still have memories of Phil Jackson smacking him in the chest, or Gasol throwing away the ball to Durant in Game 4 last season. For whatever reason, Gasol has not delivered in the playoffs, and this baffling late-game metamorphosis is what is going to keep the Lakers from catching the Thunder. If Gasol plays the way he played in the Olympics, then the Lakers are probably at the very least even with OKC. However, if Gasol continues his playoff spiral, then my prediction is that the Nash and Howard additions will mean little in terms of removing the Thunder as a championship obstacle.
3. How much more room for growth does OKC have? In what areas do you expect improvement in the coming season?
The growth that we're going to see from OKC should come in two forms. The first form of growth, which will be merely incremental, comes through the 'big 3,' Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. Each of those guys knows who they are as NBA players at this point, and what they improve on going forward is just to become better at what they already know how to do. Each of those three will continue to learn how to be more efficient on offense, more disciplined on defense, and better recognizers of in-game situations. Until the fact show otherwise, the trio will still be able to get the shots they want against the Lakers, because nobody on L.A. has the ability to guard any of them in open space.The growth that OKC really needs to see however, is through the play of Serge Ibaka. Out of all the talent that OKC possesses, he is the one key player who could mean the most in keeping OKC ahead of the Lakers in the hunt. For whatever reason we want to assign above, the one guy on the Lakers who has the most ability to damage OKC but has failed to do so is Gasol. The Thunder have demonstrated that they do not have a good team solution for any type of power forward that can pull Ibaka away from the rim on defense. Even though Ibaka was the runner up to Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, he still has a lot of lessons to learn about playing great man-to-man defense.On the other end of the court, Ibaka must continue to improve on offense so that he does not so often become an afterthought. He has legitimate offensive skills, but too often they go by the wayside when the offense flows through Westbrook and Durant. Ibaka must continue to show growth so that his team trusts him in offensive situations, which has the additional benefit of further marginalizing Gasol's output.
4. Assuming a Lakers-Thunder playoff series, give me odds on the result: 70:30 OKC? 50:50? How much of a threat are the new-look Lakers to the young budding Thunder empire?
A year ago, I thought that the Thunder were probably 80:20 favorites over the Lakers. L.A. just had some huge holes in their team concept that OKC was primed to exploit, and they did. Even when OKC played a horrible game (Game 2), they had enough margin for error to catch L.A. in the end. With the addition of Nash and Howard, I think the scales still tip toward the Thunder, but the margin of error shrinks drastically, to perhaps 60:40 and maybe even closer if the Lakers have home court advantage. An OKC poorly played game is a game lost, now. I don't think OKC has to hit the A/A+ overachievement level each time they play the Lakers in order to win, but if they are not focused, especially defensively, the Lakers will have the ability to defeat them.As far as what this does to the Thunder's psyche going forward, I actually think that it helps them in a way. The one troubling trait we witnessed a year ago, even in a weird truncated season, is that the Thunder seemed to get bored with the process of learning how to win games in the month of April. They went from having the best record in the NBA to a barely over .500 record in the final month of play. To be sure they turned things around in a hurry, but as I'm sure you Laker fans can attest, there is always something disconcerting and troubling about watching a team that begins to think they can coast. Having a Laker team that is going to be challenging for the best record (and home court in the playoffs) will serve as a necessary motivator for the Thunder to stay focused throughout the entire season.