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Despite Howard And Nash To Lakers, Thunder Still Western Conference Favorite

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OKLAHOMA CITY -

Thunder Nation: Woe is you, right? 

The rich have once again gotten richer.  A franchise with 16 World Championships just acquired two future hall-of-famers in one offseason. 

The Los Angeles Lakers just scooped up two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash and now, perennial All-NBA first-teamer Dwight Howard.

Oh, and in case this news slipped under the radar, they also picked up a cherry on top named Antawn Jamison, a career 20 point, eight rebound guy.   

You add all that to a team that was already good enough to make the conference semifinals, and you've got most people booking an all-palm tree matchup in the 2013 NBA Finals.  On the national scene, the Thunder has seemingly become an afterthought. 

But let's just take a deep breath and really think about this.  When you do, you'll realize that while the Lakers undoubtedly got better, this isn't so bad.  There are still four key reasons why the road to this year's NBA Finals is still going to have to come through OKC. 

First, The Lakers didn't do anything to fix its biggest matchup problem against the Thunder: Russell Westbrook.  In last year's playoff series, Westbrook shredded the Lakers' point guard defender, whether it was Ramon Sessions or Steve Blake, to the tune of 26 points per game.

Now, the Lakers will ask 38-year-old Steve Nash, who has never been known for any sort of defense, to attempt to keep up with the super-explosive Westbrook.  Not gonna happen.  The Westbrook problem just got worse for L.A. 

Second, while Dwight Howard may have the awards and name recognition, is he really much better than Andrew Bynum?  Let's examine.  Howard averaged 20.5 points, 14.5 rebounds and two blocks per game last season.  Monster numbers, no question about it, but some people may not realize just how good Andrew Bynum is.  Bynum put up 18.5 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks per game as well.

So it's not like the Lakers replaced some scrub with Howard, they're only actually gaining a couple points and rebounds per game in this deal. 

Keep in mind when you read those stats, Bynum didn't get nearly as many offensive touches as Howard did because of a higher level of surrounding talent.   Also, Bynum had another seven-footer (Gasol) to compete for rebounds with, where Howard's power forward (Ryan Anderson) stands on the three-point line the whole game. 

Third, how will the Lakers' team chemistry be?  And this is a huge question, because here in OKC, everybody is on the same page.    

Andrew Bynum was accused of dogging it sometimes, and sources close to the Lakers believe it was because Kobe took too many shots and Bynum didn't get the ball enough.  How will Dwight Howard, who, as we have learned, isn't the best at keeping his mouth shut, react the first time Kobe puts on his Mamba Suit and jacks up 35 shots in a game?  Maybe he'll brush it off, but what about the second time, or the third time?

"That will be an interesting dynamic," one ex-teammate of Howard told Yahoo! Sports on Friday regarding Howard's antics.  "Not even just with Kobe. I don't think [Steve] Nash and Pau [Gasol] will enjoy that at this point in their career."

Will Ron, er, Metta World Peace keep his head on straight? 

How will Nash, a guy who has spent his career making the other guys around him better, blend with Kobe, a guy who has spent his career making the other guys around him get rebounds?

The Lakers' presumed starting five of Nash, Bryant, World Peace, Gasol and Howard has a collective 33 All-Star appearances, but also healthy dose of ego. 

And fourth, in case anyone forgot, Kevin Durant is far-and-away the best player in the Western Conference, and he's only getting better.

In true L.A. fashion, it may be that the Lakers built itself a team Hollywood would be proud of: mega star power and nonstop drama, but has it built itself a championship?  If so, it's coming through Oklahoma City.

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