Dwight Howard Makes the Lakers the Team to Beat in the NBA, Yes, Better Than the Heat and Thunder

By Jason McIntyre

I’ll be blunt and obvious: Dwight Howard, Paul Gasol, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash form an old, but awesome quartet. They’ve got the best starting lineup in the NBA, even though Ron Artest will be a glaring liability at small forward. The bench, thanks to the addition of Antawn Jamison, finally has some pop. Jordan Hill, assuming he stays out of trouble, will be a valuable reserve. Nash and Howard in the pick and roll? Scary.

My main concerns:

* Mike Brown. If LA doesn’t win, that’s where the finger will be pointed. At best, he’s a mediocre coach. You almost wonder if Phil Jackson could be coaxed out of retirement to coach this team.
* Perimeter defense. Who guards Westbrook and Durant in the playoffs? Who guards Wade and LeBron in the Finals?
* Age. Nash (38), Kobe (33), Artest (32) and Gasol (32) are going to wear down. Two of those guys spent the summer playing in the Olympics.

I’ll project a 58-win season for LA, top two seed in the West, and (obviously) a showdown with the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

The LA-OKC series only went five games last season, but games 2-3-4 were very close (separated by eight points). After an impressive 20 points and 14 rebounds in game one (OKC rolled), Bynum grew ineffective as the series wore on: 20-9-4 turnovers; 15-11 (on 2-for-13 shooting!), 18-9 (four turnovers) and then foul trouble limited his impact in a game five blowout (10-4 on 4-for-10 shooting).

Howard averaged 22-12 last year in two games vs. OKC; in 2010 he averaged 39.5 points and 16.5 rebounds in two games vs. the (Perkins-less) Thunder. Even bigger than Howard’s improvement over Bynum? Nash’s arrival. LA shot a meek 28 percent from deep against the Thunder. Nash? A career 40 percent shooter from deep in the playoffs (118 games). Kobe led LA in assists in the playoffs last year (4.3 per game); Nash’s career average for assists per game in the postseason is 8.9.

LeBron and the Heat present a fascinating situation. LeBron seemed to excel at power forward late in the playoffs; he’s doing that in London, too. Will we see him regularly defend Gasol or Howard in the Finals? I’m excited at the prospect of finally seeing Kobe vs. LeBron in the Finals, and there’s no chance it ends the way Magic vs. Jordan ended.

I’ll secretly hold out for this – the Lakers lose in the conference finals, as Gasol looks like an old 32, and Kobe’s body can’t handle the 82 game season and then 17 more in the playoffs. Howard looks around at the roster – Ron Artest is old, the entire bench is on the wrong side of 30, too – and decides, ‘I’m out.’

Then he winds up in Houston with Jeremy Lin and the on-the-rise Rockets or goes home to Atlanta, where Danny Ferry nuked the roster and rebuilt it – leaving a spot for Howard.