Top 8 NBA Who’s the Western Conference Favorite in 2012-13

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By trading for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard this summer, the Los Angeles Lakers proved once again that they’re not content fading into the sunset.

Instead, they’re on the short list of NBA championship favorites heading into the 2012-13 season.

Last year’s Western Conference champions, the Oklahoma City Thunder, won’t just roll over to the Lakers, though.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka should all benefit from their Olympic experiences this summer, allowing them to impart lessons learned to their young teammates.

Before we crown the Lakers as new Western Conference favorites, let’s take a position-by-position look at how the two teams match up, post-Howard trade.

Point Guard: Steve Nash vs. Russell Westbrook

It’s not often that a two-time league MVP will finish second in a two-man race, but against Russell Westbrook, 38-year-old Steve Nash falls short.

This will be the most apples-and-oranges debate of any position on these two teams. Nash plays like the pass-first, shoot-second “pure” point guard that’s mostly expected from the position, while Westbrook falls more in the Derrick Rose mold of scoring 20 points a game without blinking.

Nash should fit perfectly with all of his new Lakers teammates, as he’ll be blessed with a multitude of offensive options each trip down the floor.

Should he run the pick-and-roll with Dwight Howard? The pick-and-pop with Pau Gasol? Work some two-man backcourt magic with Kobe Bryant?

Defensively, Nash could become somewhat of a liability, however, especially against quick point guards like Westbrook. Back problems have also hampered Nash’s effectiveness at times in the past few years.

The 23-year-old Westbrook, on the other hand, should remain spry all season. Assuming he continues to evolve in his understanding of when to be aggressive and when to look for teammates on offense, Westbrook holds the clear edge here.

Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant vs. Thabo Sefolosha

One’s a five-time NBA champion and 14-time NBA All-Star; the other has a 5.4 points-per-game career average.

Even at 34 years old, Kobe Bryant remains one of the most dominant, terrifying forces in the league. He came down right to the wire last season with Kevin Durant for the scoring title, having averaged 27.9 points on 23 shots per game.

Now, with three veritable All-Stars alongside him in the starting lineup, Bryant won’t be required to dominate every night in order to give the Lakers a real chance to win.

Thabo Sefolosha’s scoring potential may never excite the casual NBA fan, but his defensive abilities earn him his spot in the starting lineup. When the Thunder and Lakers duel, Thunder coach Scott Brooks will sic Sefolosha on Bryant to make his life miserable for a night.

While Sefolosha’s proven effective in frustrating Bryant before, only one of these players is expected to carry his team for a reason.

Small Forward: Metta World Peace vs. Kevin Durant

If someone invents a time machine in the next few years, let’s bring mid-2000s Metta World Peace (then known as Ron Artest) to the present to battle Kevin Durant.

The 32-year-old World Peace isn’t quite the defender he once was in his younger days, but he still held opposing small forwards to a PER of 11.8 this past season, according to 82games.com.

Unfortunately for World Peace, his counterpart in this matchup just so happens to be the second-best player in the league, behind only LeBron James.

The long arms and quick release of Durant, the reigning three-time scoring champion, allow him to score 25-30 points a night with ease. In the past few seasons, he’s also taken noticeable strides on defense and in his ability to get teammates involved offensively.

The World Peace from five to 10 years ago might have stood a shot at shutting down Durant, but this isn’t much of a fair fight nowadays.

Power Forward: Pau Gasol vs. Serge Ibaka

Pau Gasol should be the happiest of all the Lakers to have Steve Nash on his team, as Nash’s presence could transform Gasol into the deadliest third or fourth option in the league.

Nash, a pick-and-roll specialist, should run the move with both Gasol and Dwight Howard to his heart’s content this season. With the mobility and strong hands of both big men, the move should be nearly impossible to defend once the Lakers perfect it.

Pick-and-roll coverage hasn’t always been a strong suit for 22-year-old Serge Ibaka, who just signed a four-year, $48 million extension with the Thunder in early August.

As Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated notes, Ibaka tends to find himself out of position defensively at times due to his propensity for shot-blocking.

Ibaka’s at a young enough age that there’s no reason to expect him to stagnate developmentally any time soon. While he may not have deserved to finish second in Defensive Player of the Year voting this past season, he very well could in years to come.

Defensively, Ibaka trumps Gasol, but Gasol’s potential to become a 20-10 player again gives him the overall advantage.

Center: Dwight Howard vs. Kendrick Perkins

Assuming Dwight Howard returns healthy from back surgery, the Lakers managed to replace Andrew Bynum with the one center in the league more talented than him.

Defensively, Howard has no peer. He’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who’s led the league in blocks twice and rebounding six times in his eight seasons.

Last season, he limited opposing centers to a PER of 14 per 48 minutes, according to 82games.com, while managing a 25.2 PER average of his own. That’s domination on both ends of the court.

Kendrick Perkins was one of the few centers who could hold his own against Howard back in their Boston and Orlando days, which now makes him irreplaceable for the Thunder. (There goes the idea of amnestying him, in other words.)

However, Perk doesn’t hold a candle to what Howard can do offensively. That gives Howard the edge in this matchup.

Sixth Man: Antawn Jamison vs. James Harden

Seeing as Antawn Jamison served as LeBron James’ No. 2 option back in Cleveland a few years ago, having him as a sixth man is a major luxury for the Lakers this season.

The 36-year-old Jamison has averaged nearly 20 points per game throughout his career and managed to put up 17.2 points in 33 minutes per game last season with Cleveland. Jamison won’t average 16 shots a night with the Lakers, but he could still be an effective scoring option off the bench.

The Thunder, though, happen to tout the league’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year in James Harden, who’s quickly evolved into a not-so-poor-man’s Manu Ginobili.

The Beard averaged nearly 17 points per game on just over 49 percent shooting from the field last season—both stellar numbers for a reserve.

What’s truly scary is that Harden turns only 23 in a few days. He’s still years away from his prime.

Jamison could serve as a poor man’s Lamar Odom for the Lakers this year, but Harden should continue carving his name out as a legitimate All-Star for the Thunder.

Reserves

Beyond Antawn Jamison, the Lakers bench unit will most likely consist of Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Devin Ebanks and Jordan Hill.

Meeks, a former starter in Philadelphia, will help space the floor with his three-point shooting ability (something the Lakers sorely lacked last season).

None of these players will light up the crowd most nights, but they should be a considerable upgrade over the Lakers’ notably terrible bench from this past season.

On the Thunder’s side, besides Harden, they’ll most likely bring out Eric Maynor, Lazar Hayward, Nick Collison and Cole Aldrich as their main bench unit, with Daequan Cook, Hollis Thompson, Perry Jones and Hasheem Thabeet all waiting in the wings.

By virtue of depth alone, the Thunder earn the star here.

Maynor, in particular, should be a welcome addition back to the lineup after missing last season with a torn ACL, and the rookie Jones could be the steal of the draft if concerns about his knees don’t pan out.

Even if the Thunder suffer a few injuries this season, the quality of players they have as backups should keep them afloat as one of the top Western Conference teams.

The Verdict

By matchup scores alone, the Thunder prevail over the Lakers by a margin of 4-3.

Realistically, that looks about right. It’s going to be that close this season.

Heading into the year, the Thunder deserve the benefit of the doubt as the top Western Conference team. They emerged as the Western Conference champions last year, didn’t lose any major pieces this summer (no offense, Derek Fisher and Nazr Mohammad) and added a couple of young pieces that should make them even stronger.

If and when the Lakers starting unit becomes a cohesive machine on both ends of the floor, the Thunder could be in serious trouble.

The Lakers pretty clearly hold the advantage in three of the five matchups in the teams’ respective starting lineups, but cohesion takes time, as the Miami Heat learned the hard way in 2010-11.

Realistically, these teams enter the season as the favorites to meet in the Western Conference finals.

If that matchup actually comes to fruition, it’ll be a treat for all NBA fans, no matter the outcome.

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