In Laker land LA fans seem to think that with the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash that they already have made the 2013 NBA Finals. In loud city, the defending Western Conference champion Thunder are quietly going about their off season making little noise at all. Most of their off-season has been spent rewarding four-year contract extensions to coach Scott Brooks and last season's leading shot blocker Serge Ibaka. Oh and they brought home three Olympic gold medals and one silver medal back to OKC. Everyone seems to be predicting a Heat-Lakers Final in 2013 but that is not the Finals I foresee. So before everyone gets ahead of themselves lets slow down and take a look at the bigger picture.
First and foremost lets not forget that when Dwight Howard steps out onto the court for the first time in a Laker uniform, he will be playing in his first game since he injured his back and had to have surgery to repair a herniated disk. There's been much speculation as to whether or not the Lakers first game of the 2012-2013 season will include Howard. The other question fans need to ask themselves is how will Howard bounce back from this injury? There's no guarantee he will be the same player he was before when he makes his return or if he has now become more injury prone moving forward. Sometimes major injuries lead to more injuries down the road. Laker fans are just hoping this injury was a one-time thing and it doesn’t affect him once he makes his return. In addition how is he going to mesh with Bryant, Nash and rest of the Lakers offense? These guys have never played together before and believe it or not, team chemistry does count for something. Will they be able to work together as one cohesive unit? Only time will tell but I have my doubts.
One of the Lakers biggest weaknesses and the one I believe will be their biggest downfall is their bench. Although it is slightly improved over last season (last season they ranked last in the NBA in bench production) it is still far from great. The Lakers bench play will be key for them due to their aging core. With Kobe Bryant just celebrating his 34th birthday the Lakers are composed of core players who aren't exactly getting any younger and are past their peak years. Steve Nash is 38 years old, Pau Gasol is 32 and Ron Artest (aka Metta World Peace) turns 33 in November, which leaves Howard as the only starter under 30. These guys will not be able to put in serious minutes night in and night out for 82 games. And what happens if one of their big three gets injured? I question how competitive they'll be if one of the big three goes down. So that leaves us with the question of how much gas do these guys have left in the tank? Will it be enough to get them to the NBA Finals? There's a good chance they will have to go through OKC to get there. Unlike the Lakers, OKC's starting lineup is all under the age of 30 and Durant and Westbrook can play 48 minutes straight no problem if they need to. The Thunder is young and they are fast. Can the Lakers keep up with the Thunder in a seven game series? I'm not convinced.
However, the main reason Thunder fans shouldn't stress over the Lakers has little to do with the Lakers and everything to do with the Thunder. I will always have confidence in the Thunder as long as they have Kevin Durant. The scoring champion the last three seasons (for the record the last player to win three scoring titles in a row before Durant accomplished that feat last season was none other than Michael Jordan), improving defender, clutch shooter, hard worker and by the way he's still getting better. Lets keep in mind he'll only be 24 when next season begins. He's improved every season since he entered the league and if that trend continues, which I'm predicting it will, he'll be even better next season. I think he'll also return next season more determined and hungrier than ever after his team's exit from the Finals. Then you have the other half of what is arguably the most dynamic duo in the NBA, Russell Westbrook. Westbrook played great against the Lakers last season and especially in playoffs getting almost every shot he wanted on the floor. The Lakers couldn't guard him last year and they won't be able to guard him next year. Like Durant, I also believe Westbrook will be even better next season. I respect Steve Nash but he was not exactly an improvement on the defensive end of the floor which leaves me with the question of how do the Lakers plan on containing Durant and Westbrook? Howard's presence will definitely help a lot but he can't do it alone. Then there's Serge Ibaka, last season's runner up in Defensive Player of the Year voting and a First-Team All-Defensive team selection. He's another young and talented Thunder player who has continued to improve every season. He became a much more consistent shooter last season and if he can continue to improve that mid-range jump shot of his he will be a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the floor next season. I believe he has everything it takes to be an elite player in this league and he's my X factor for OKC next season. I believe his play will play a vital role in how far they go. And let us not forget Sixth Man of the Year James Harden who makes the Thunder offense even harder to stop when he’s on the floor and makes their bench one of the best in the league. Their bench will also be improved over last season with the return of Eric Maynor. The Thunder are still younger than the Lakers, faster than the Lakers and have more depth than the Lakers.
Perhaps the biggest reason I believe OKC remains the team to beat in the West is because I believe last season's Finals loss will ultimately prove to be a growing experience for them and make them better heading into next season. Every season they have gotten better as a team and every season they have moved one step closer to achieving their goal of winning a championship, the only step they have left now is winning one. The loss to Miami no doubt left a bitter taste in the mouths of OKC players but now they know exactly what they need to do to get back to the Finals and win. They’ll enter next season more experienced, more confident and mentally tougher. Combine the experience with the age, talent, athleticism and determination of this young OKC squad and you’re left with a team that has all the components to arguably become the next NBA dynasty. So you see my reasons for not being overly concerned about the Lakers really has more to do with the confidence I have in the Thunder than anything else.
I keep hearing the comment that the Lakers have the best roster on paper, which may be true but my question to all you basketball fans out there is this; how many games does paper win? I guess we'll find out next season. Until then, no dwightmares for this Thunder fan as I'll be doing what I always tell OKC fans to do, keep calm and Thunder up.