The Dwight Howard saga is over, finally, and it ended in the worst possible way for the Thunder — with the league's best center landing in Los Angeles as the newest member of the Lakers.
Many consider the four-team blockbuster trade that sent Howard from Orlando to L.A. to be a move that puts the Lakers in control of the Western Conference. It's a move that comes on the heels of the Lakers adding floor general Steve Nash and regaining their relevance following a five-game loss to the Thunder in last season's semifinals.
But before the Lakers waltz to their 17th NBA championship, they seemingly will have to get past the Thunder. Even with their additions, that won't be an easy task. Here's a look at the updated matchups and how the new pieces could change things.
POINT GUARD: RUSSELL WESTBROOK VS. STEVE NASH
ANALYSIS: It's Nash's newfound weapons that even turn this matchup into a discussion, because we saw Westbrook thoroughly dominate the two-time MVP last season. Nash averaged just 10.7 points and eight assists in three games against the Thunder last year, all losses. And it's Nash's offense that even makes him a threat. Defensively, Nash doesn't stand a chance. Westbrook averaged 21.3 points and 6.3 assists while shooting 49 percent against Phoenix last year. But with Kobe Bryant there to help slow Westbrook on the wing, and Dwight Howard now in the middle, Westbrook will undoubtedly face stouter defense from the Lakers. And with Bryant, Howard and Pau Gasol flanking him, expect Nash to be as good as you've ever seen him orchestrating his team's offense.
SHOOTING GUARD: THABO SEFOLOSHA VS. KOBE BRYANT
ANALYSIS: Who remembers the last time the Thunder had to double-team Kobe Bryant? We certainly don't. That's a credit to Sefolosha. He's become one of the toughest defenders Bryant sees each season. In three games against the Thunder last year, Bryant averaged 24.3 points on 30.7 percent shooting — his third lowest connection rate against any team he faced at least three times. Sefolosha hounded Bryant in two of those games. James Harden also has had some of his best defensive games against Bryant. Thanks to that tandem, the Thunder has no reason to fear the bite of the “Black Mamba.”
SMALL FORWARD: KEVIN DURANT VS. METTA WORLD PEACE
ANALYSIS: World Peace is getting older. Durant is getting better. Three years ago, Durant struggled against a player as physical defensively as World Peace. Now, Durant has learned to have success against any and all types of defenses. But here's why Howard is so handy for the Lakers. Even moderate success for World Peace against Durant becomes a huge win. With the Thunder seemingly set to have more trouble scoring against the Lakers, OKC will need Durant to be at his best. The 42 percent he shot against L.A. last year would feel like 32 percent next season.
POWER FORWARD: SERGE IBAKA VS. PAU GASOL
ANALYSIS: Once the Olympics are over, we would suggest Ibaka get busy working on pick-and-roll coverage. Gasol and Nash will run teams ragged in the high pick-and-roll, and it is likely to expose one of the Thunder's biggest weaknesses. Westbrook is not a great pick-and-roll defender, and neither is Ibaka. The Lakers could live off of it against OKC and transform Gasol into a bigger scoring threat than the four-time All-Star has ever been. To understand Nash's impact on mobile big men, consider the case of Phoenix center Marcin Gortat. In Orlando, Gortat never averaged more than four points. When teaming up with Nash, Gortat averaged 13 points in the first year and 15.4 points last year. Beyond the basic stats, Gortat's connection rate at the rim jumped from 69.2 percent to 74.3 percent. Of the makes, Gortat had 80.4 percent assisted at the rim in year one with Nash and 84.3 assisted at the rim last year. Gortat never surpassed a 77.6 percent assisted rate in Orlando. Translate that impact to a player like Gasol, and that becomes a scary proposition. And we haven't even gotten into how Gasol's dirty work on the boards (remember the 2010 playoffs?) will prevent Ibaka from providing weakside help on Howard. Add it all up, and it's enough to think Gasol just might be the most dangerous Laker against the Thunder. And that spells trouble for Ibaka.
CENTER: KENDRICK PERKINS VS. DWIGHT HOWARD
ANALYSIS: These two towers of power have locked horns 24 times in the regular season. Howard has averaged 16.3 points, 12.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots. Perkins has averaged 5.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots. They've hooked up 13 times in the playoffs. Howard has averaged 18.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. Perkins has averaged 7.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. Those numbers are more of a credit to Howard's greatness than a sign of how effective Perkins has been against him. The figures that are more indicative of Perkins' impact are seen in the win columns. Howard is 13-11 against Perkins' teams in the regular season. Perkins' teams have gone 7-6 against Howard in the playoffs. That's why Perkins is considered the league's best low post defender, and it's the reason why the new-look Lakers don't scare the Thunder.