Prior to the 2012-13 NBA season, the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder and the revamped Los Angeles Lakers were early favorites to face off in the Western Conference finals. On paper, both teams are loaded with talent.
So far this season, despite trading last season’s Sixth Man of the Year award winner James Harden, the Thunder are 15-4, which is good enough for second place in the Western Conference. They’re leading the league in points per game as a team, and the two-headed monster of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both having MVP-caliber seasons.
Meanwhile, the Lakers started the season with a 1-4 record, which led to the firing of head coach Mike Brown. Since that time, the Lakers haven’t been much better, and currently stand at 9-10 (eighth place in the Western Conference, barely enough for a playoff spot if the postseason started today).
But even though the Thunder have jumped out of the gates with a solid start while the Lakers have struggled, there’s a good chance these two teams will meet up come playoff time. So which team would have the advantage in a seven-game series?
Well, the first variable to take into account is youth, and in addition to that, health.
The Lakers, despite their roster loaded with superstars and former All-Stars, are one of the oldest teams in the NBA.
The 38-year-old Steve Nash is currently out indefinitely, according to ESPN. His backup, Steve Blake, recently underwent surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle and will reportedly miss 6-8 weeks, according to ESPN.
Even with Kobe Bryant playing as well as he has been to open the season, the Lakers are going to have a hard time finding production elsewhere if nobody is healthy.
This is a complete contrast to the Thunder, a team that has Durant (24), Westbrook (24) and Serge Ibaka (23) as their core of stars. That’s not to mention their new sixth man, Kevin Martin, who at 29 years old is still younger than the majority of Lakers players.
We’ve seen experienced, veteran teams play well during the grueling postseason schedule before. However, teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics showed last season that even they can break down against quicker, more athletic teams (namely OKC and Miami).
In theory, Bryant and Durant will play each other to a stalemate. They are two of the game’s best scorers and they know what it takes to win on the biggest stage.
As a result, this matchup will come down to the supporting cast around those two alpha dogs.
Where the Thunder have an advantage is with Westbrook at point guard. Unless the Lakers decide to have Bryant guard Westbrook while having World Peace guard Durant, they have no answer for the athletic point guard. The Lakers’ second-best player to this point, Dwight Howard, may not have such an advantage.
Not only does Oklahoma City have Ibaka, one of the game’s best shot-blockers, but they also have Kendrick Perkins. Although Perk has certainly lost a step since his days in Boston, he’s shown that he can be effective when facing D12.
According to Basketball Reference, in 24 regular-season games played against Perkins, Howard is averaging 16.3 points per contest. That’s lower than his 18.4 points-per-game average for his career.
In the postseason against Perkins, Howard averages 18.9 points per game compared to his career postseason average of 19.9, so not a huge difference there. However, against Perkins in the playoffs, Howard is shooting 55.8 percent from the floor, compared to his career mark of 60 percent from the floor.
Perkins certainly hasn’t been a dynamic “lock-down” talent when facing the best center in the NBA, but he has been able to neutralize Howard to some extent and prevent him from having monstrous games.
So while the Lakers have no defensive answer for Westbrook at point guard, OKC may be able to keep their heads above water against Howard in the postseason.
In a seven-game series, it’s hard to pick against the Thunder. Their youth and athleticism won out against the Spurs last season, a team with better coaching and chemistry than most (certainly more than the Lakers have shown early on). Don’t be surprised if the same narrative plays itself out should the Lakers match up against the Thunder moving forward.
Note: All statistics in this article are accurate as of Dec. 6, 2012.