Friday, October 5, 2012

Cogs and Gears: The Thunder is still the best in the west.

Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

This is a follow up article to my Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers preview, if you have not read it, please check it out. This post focuses only on the Thunder and Lakers, based on the assumption that they are most likely to face each other in the playoffs.

Last season, the Thunder have established their dominance in the West, taking apart every team they faced with much ease. They swept the reigning champion Mavericks and took no more than 6 games in each series en route to the NBA Finals. Although their quest for the Larry O' Brien Trophy got stopped short by the Miami Heat, they proved to everyone that youth is not a factor and that they can hang with the best of them.

Over the Summer, the Lakers went under construction and rebuilt themselves as title contenders. The addition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, gave Lakers a new edge on both offense and defense.While on paper, the superstar studded team seems unbeatable, but are they even good enough to get out of the formidable west?

One problem that Lakers still have not addressed is their perimeter defense, you can even argue that it got worst. With the exception of Metta World Peace, their back court unit is a defensive liability. As a jump shooting team, the Thunder can easily exploit that weakness. Kevin Durant is as unstoppable as they come, Metta will only be able to hold him off until KD utilizes his height and length over the bulky defender (MWP does play Durant pretty well, holding him down to 6 point less than his average and 7% lower than his usual FG%).

To Los Angeles's dismay, the Thunder are one of best at attacking in transition (14% of their offense at 58 FG% ). With old legs and German knees the Lake Show will not be able to keep up (highest FG% allowed by the Lakers's defense at 59%). Early substitution, exposes even more holes  in the veteran filled roster. If they can not stop the youngsters from running the ball, Kobe will always be one short of a championship from tying Michael Jordan.

In pick and roll situations, Lakers should improve drastically with better rotations from Dwight. In the Western Conference Semi Finals, Westbrook was able to pull up for a shot when ever he wanted, because Bynum was slow to hedge after the screen. Howard's quickness will be able to solve the issue.

Despite the improvements to the Los Angeles front court, Thunder's reliance on the mid range game create another set of difficulties. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Superman does not affect the Thunder's FG% at all, 50% when he is on, and 48% when he is on the bench. Dwight will need his less defensive minded teammates to step up and protect the basket. Do not discount for Howard's presence though, for it does play a role. The young squad's big three tend to decrease their attempts at the hoop when the big man is around (about 6 less).

Oklahoma City is an underrated defensive team, and not to mention they have the only kryptonite left in the league. Angry face Kendrick Perkins is the key to hold down Shaq 2.0 in the defensive end of the court. As a member of the Boston Celtics, Perkins held Dwight to a 39 field goal percentage. Without him, Superman emerges and shoots at a 53%. If history repeats itself, Steve Nash will convert Dwight to an even more dangerous offensive threat, making it harder for anyone to defend him.

Serge Ibaka's superior help defense instincts have caused trouble for any team that dares to shoot at his basket. He alone, swipes the Lakers's field goal percentage down to 36% from a 47%. Back court wise, OKC have already found the anti-venom for the Black Mamba, in form of a man named Thabo Sefolosha. In the 2011-2012 season, Kobe shot at an average of 43%, but that number drops to the 30's when he faces the lanky swiss.

Oklahoma City's combined youth and unique versatility create match up night mares for Los Angeles. Before the Lakers even think about getting their hands on a 17th banner, to rub in face of their historic rival, Celtics, they will have to play their best defense. After all the young squad's dependence of mid range jumper will either make them or break them.

Sources: The Oklahoman (Picture), Statistics from My Synergy Sports, NBA Advanced Stats and Basketball Reference.

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