Thunder, not Lakers, still team to beat in West

Thunder, not Lakers, still team to beat in West

Published Aug. 13, 2012 3:50 p.m. ET

Already this week, Andrew Luck has been fitted for a fistful of championship rings and a badly colored blazer, marking his immediate and certain entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So, naturally, it makes sense to go ahead get the parade route mapped out through Los Angeles after the 2012-13 NBA season wraps up.

Andrew Luck is the next great NFL quarterback and Dwight Howard = championship for the Lakers. Simple.

Man, it's a shame we actually have to play the games.

Speaking of which, anyone watch the basketball games in London the past few weeks? That was Kevin Durant setting a U.S. record for points in a single Olympics. That was Durant scoring 30 in the gold-medal game despite a box-and-1 defense by Spain. Yes, a box-and-1 in which they treated Durant like a high school star with no help around him. Sure, leave everyone else open to shoot, but guard that guy.

Yeah, that Kevin Durant. The three-time NBA scoring champ. Not NBA champ LeBron James or clutch Kobe Bryant. Durant was the one who was feared most. The one who took the biggest shots against Argentina and Spain.

And because of Durant, there are no guarantees.

We just might want to wait more than 15 minutes before declaring Luck the next Peyton Manning and the Lakers the next NBA champions.

The Thunder and Durant will probably go ahead and suit up.

Somewhere in the excitement of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard joining the Lakers, common sense has been discarded as well as recent history.

Hoarding superstars might have worked in Miami, but it didn't work immediately. LeBron took his talents to South Beach, but it took him two seasons to win a title.

Now, with Kobe paired with Howard and Nash, an already dysfunctional roster gets an extreme makeover.

This isn't a tweak, it's plastic surgery, changing the face, the body, everything. The Lakers tried something similar a decade ago, adding Gary Payton and Karl Malone to Shaq and Kobe. Sure, Howard in his prime is better than Malone at the end of his career, but pieces glued together don't necessarily fit together.

Chemistry matters. It was just a few months ago that Kobe called out Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum pouted and Metta World Peace served a suspension in the playoffs. Now everything is good? Sure, Bynum has been dumped, but now the team brings in Howard, who worked his way through the body of the Orlando Magic and infected the team, the coach and the season.

Suddenly, Howard is going to be in line for a merit badge? A guy forces his way out of a situation in which everything was built around him and now he's going to be a good soldier? If he did it once, no doubt it's doable again.

Oh, and has anyone checked on his back? Howard shut himself down at the end of the regular season, didn't play in the playoffs and isn't expected to be ready to play immediately for the Lakers. Undoubtedly, his health has been evaluated, but back issues are balky at best.

Then there's Steve Nash. He's one of the league's most impressive offensive players the past decade, but can he defend any better than Ramon Sessions? None of the Lakers last season could put a hand on Russell Westbrook, not to mention Durant, and Nash isn't about to get in his way. Yes, Howard erases a lot of defensive mistakes, but can he erase James Harden and Durant and Westbrook?

Meanwhile, back in Oklahoma City, the roster is virtually unchanged. It's not a group that needs tweaking. Yes, the Lakers and Heat are supremely talented, but so are the Thunder. Remember, it's OKC that featured four players in the Olympic final — Durant, Westbrook and Harden on Team USA and Serge Ibaka for Spain — and all of them are young and injury-free.

Can't say that about Miami and its creaky Dwyane Wade and void at center. Can't say that about Kobe and Nash.

The Heat and their glorious star power fell short against a team-oriented Dallas Mavericks team in the final two seasons ago. The Thunder, losers of two in a row to a San Antonio team that was enjoying a 20-game winning streak last season, rallied for four wins in a row against the Spurs.

Yeah, it's a shame we have to actually play the games.