Who are the favorites now?
With all due respect to folks down in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio, when the casual NBA fan thinks about which team will win the title this upcoming season it usually comes down to a selection of three: none of which reside in the cities just mentioned.
We already knew that Oklahoma City and Miami would be in the discussion, with many observers predicting that last year’s Finals series was just a taste of what’s to come.
The list of title contending teams grew by 50% recently when a center with the nickname Superman made his way from Orlando to the Lakers (I’ve been reassured that we are not still in 1996). The arrival of Dwight Howard to the purple and gold finally ends months of speculation as to his future, if only for 12 months. It also turns the Lakers from a reasonable playoff team into a team capable of winning it all.
What already promised to be an intriguing season has vaulted into must watch basketball. In one corner we have the defending champs led by the best player we’ve seen since Jordan was wearing a Bulls uniform. In the other corner we have the upcoming young team hungry to make amends for a disappointing end to last season, and led by superstar Kevin Durant. New to the contention party is the team from Hollywood, who now boast four future Hall of Famers in their starting line-up. Each team brings with it a fascinating storyline, but only one team has the overall edge and the right to be called the favorites.
Lets start with the team that is currently the talk of the NBA world, the LA Lakers. After landing Steve Nash and Howard, the NBA may as well save us all the time and hand out the Executive of the Year Award to LA’s Mitch Kupchak. By adding that tandem to the nucleus of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers look almost unstoppable on paper. However, we have all learnt by now that winning on paper is entirely different from winning on the court. The big question is how all of these stars are going to fit together, and the key to answering that question will be Nash, the driver behind the team’s offense. Despite his advanced age, he still knows how to run a team’s offense better than just about anyone in the NBA.
Bryant will continue to want his shots, and Gasol proved in the Olympic gold medal game that an offence could easily run through him. Throw Howard into the mix and all of a sudden one ball doesn’t seem like a lot to share between such established players. It will be up to Nash distribute shots evenly and make each star feel adequately involved in the offense.
Between the four stars, the Lakers should be able to put up enough points without too much trouble. It is on the defensive end where the addition of Howard will be most profound. If there is a LeBron stopper in the league, or a kryptonite for LeBron, it is Howard as the Magic were able to hold off the Cavs and make the Finals a few years ago. Howard is the one player that gives LeBron pause wehen he really wants to get a basket at the rim. The Lakers will only go as far as Howard takes them defensively. A balanced scoring attack with Howard and Metta World Peace leading the way on defense are what could turn the Lakers from contenders into champions.
Oklahoma City Thunder
It seems that some people are born with a singular purpose in life. For Kevin Durant of the Thunder, that purpose is to score points in the NBA, and lots of them. Coming off an Olympic Games in which he led Team USA in scoring, the 23-year-old superstar seems to be going from strength to strength. With another year under their collective belts, the trio of Durant, Harden and Westbrook will be an improved team to last year’s version, and even more hungry. They have now paid their playoff dues. The time to deliver is now.
Yet plenty of questions continue to surround this dangerous young team. Will Harden recover from his horrendous Finals play? Will Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins provide enough defense to warrant their limited offensive production? Harden should be able to return to top form without any trouble, and chalk up last year’s Finals performance as an exception rather than the rule. However the lack of offensive production from the Thunder’s two big men remains a legitimate concern and something that could get in the way of the Thunder holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end.
The key for the Thunder is the play of Westbrook, and his ability to play in control and run the offense like a true point guard. The Thunder need his scoring, but they also need it to be achieved in a more efficient manner. When you have the greatest scorer in the world on your team, you have to find a way to get him the ball more often. It is unacceptable for Westbrook to be taking more shots than Durant in any given game. It is also up to Durant to do a better job of getting open and coming off screens. The collective effort by the two stars in this regard will determine how far they go this season.
Finally we arrive at the defending champs, who are coming off a wave of celebrations down in South Beach. Any chance of complacency would have quickly dissipated upon hearing the news of Howard’s arrival in LA. One thing is for certain: barring injuries, this team will be better than last year’s.
As impossible as it may seem, LeBron James continues to get better, as he works on his outside shot and post game. In addition to this, last season solved the dilemma of what each star’s role on this team is. James is the leader, with Wade as his sidekick, while Bosh acts as the shot-blocker/rebounder required to do the dirty work and hold down the front line. Their cohesion has now been formed, as team chemistry has turned from a weakness into a strength. Add to the mix Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis knocking down threes and all of a sudden you have a team capable of creating a dynasty.
Despite all this, the team’s biggest improvement will be mental. Last season they faced all the pressure in the world- and overcame it. By getting the proverbial monkey off the back, James can now play with a sense of confidence and easiness that cannot be manufactured. The only way to attain it is by climbing the mountaintop and therefore knowing you can get there.
It is for this reason in particular that the Miami Heat deserve to be called the favorites for the upcoming NBA season. They will have the best player, the best team chemistry, and the knowledge within that they’ve got what it takes.
To get to the top again may be even more difficult than last season. With these three teams and all of their stars going at it, anything is possible. One is thing is for certain though, it will be an absolute pleasure to watch.