By Anthony Slater – Aslater@opubco.com - @anthonyVslater
Oklahoma City remains the defending Western Conference Champs.
But if we’re measuring the upcoming season by media hype and national attention, the Los Angeles Lakers have firmly snatched the Thunder’s crown.
I guess that’s what happens when you gather five potential Hall of Famers (Ron Artest remains debatable) into one starting lineup and showcase it on the NBA’s biggest marketable stage.
And even before these aging stars have played a minute of game action together, the growing circus has already provided us with some great preseason blotter.
So let’s take a trip to Lakerland and check in with the team many believe is the biggest on-court threat to Oklahoma City’s shot at a Western Conference repeat.
Mike Brown talks Thunder
Almost immediately after Dwight Howard’s trade to the Lakers, expected questions were lofted toward Thunder players and coaches at any potential chance.
How good could the Lakers be? Are you afraid of their potential? Should they already be considered favorites in the West?
Players shook it off, basically avoiding the questions all together. Scott Brooks was a little more candid, but wouldn’t label anyone as favorites in the West, saying ”We respect them, but aren’t fearful of them.”
That cordial respect was also present in Los Angeles, where Mike Brown shook off the notion of the Lakers as immediate title favorites.
“The Western Conference champs, that’s the Oklahoma City Thunder. The NBA champs, that’s the Miami Heat,” Brown said. “So nothing is given to us and we have to respect that.”
Whose team is it?
Every star-driven team, with multiple franchise faces, is commonly hit with the media’s favorite talking point and question.
Oklahoma City, whose team is it? Durant or Westbrook? Miami, who’s taking the last shot? LeBron or Wade?
But regardless of similar circumstances in Los Angeles, with Dwight Howard’s massive arrival, that question was shot down quickly. Kobe Bryant is making sure he doesn’t have another Shaq experience.
“I don’t want to get into the, ‘Well, we share …’ ” Bryant said at Lakers media day. ”No, it’s my team. But I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his. I want to teach him everything I possibly know so that when I step away, this organization will ride on as if I never left.”
Artest on Nash
Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Ron Artest have never played with a facilitator like Steve Nash. And Nash has never had a batch of surrounding weapons like this feared foursome (despite their ascending age).
And already, during preseason practices and games, Nash’s passing wizardry has caught the eye of his new teammates. Especially Artest.
“Half of the time, I don’t get back on defense after we just scored,” Artest told the Los Angeles Times. ”I’m wondering what just happened.”
“Nash should do a Vegas magic show,” he continued. ”They should put his picture on the Flamingo hotel with a picture of him posing spinning the ball with his tongue out. There could be a bunch of strippers around him naked covering themselves with a hat.
Kobe talks two more years
An NBA season without Los Angeles’ most stubborn star is hard to imagine. But, according to Kobe Bryant, we may only have two more of them.
In an exclusive interview with CBSSports.com’s Ken Berger, Bryant sounded like a man who was leaning heavily toward retirement following the 2013-14 season.
“It’s just that three more years seems like a really long time to continue to stay at a high, high level of training and preparation and health,” Bryant told Berger. “That’s a lot of years. For a guard? That’s a lot of years.”
At a relatively healthy 34, Bryant has the skill set to stay on an NBA roster well into his late 30′s. But that would require a continued competitive drive, something that has never been questioned by anyone. Except Bryant himself.
“It’s not about health necessarily,” Bryant told Berger. “It’s about, ‘Do I want to do it? Do I have that hunger to continue to prepare at a high level?’ ”
Who knows if Bryant follows through on this threat. But one thing I do know? It’s hard to imagine an aging Bryant willing to play 15 minutes a night coming off the bench. Unless he’s jacking 15 shots in those 15 minutes.
Howard’s healing back
Dwight Howard is yet to make his preseason debut, but word out of Laker camp is the bulky center has healed quicker than expected.
Howard had back surgery in April, forcing him to miss the final month of the season and the first round of the playoffs. But his camp activity has been rapidly increasing throughout preseason workouts.
“Dwight’s exceeded my expectations in terms of what he can do in training camp,” Mitch Kupchak told the Los Angeles Times. “I thought it would be a much slower progression, but he’s come along a lot quicker than I thought.”
Howard is still aiming to make his debut in LA’s regular season opener against Dallas.
“I want to play, but at the same time I want to make sure I’m in good shape,” Howard told the paper. “There’s no pain in my back. The biggest thing is trying to be in shape.”
Bryant beefing with ex-teammate Smush Parker
How about that picture at the top? You couldn’t encapsulate the circus surrounding this team in one still image. Try to count the media members; I lost track after 20.