March 4, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers power forward Troy Murphy (14), power forward Pau Gasol (16) and small forward Metta World Peace (15) exchange words with Miami Heat center Joel Anthony (50) and small forward LeBron James (6) as they are separated by Los Angeles Lakers coach John Kuester during the game at the Staples Center. Lakers won 93-83. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Have The Los Angeles Lakers Surpassed The MiamI Heat As The NBA Championship Favourites?

Remember when we thought it was going to be a Heat/Thunder finals for the next six years?

Oh, how things have changed.

When Dwight Howard slips on that purple and gold jersey for the first time, it will be the culmination of the franchises most successful offseason since 1996. In trading for the 2nd coming of “Superman” as well as “Kid Canada” himself Steve Nash, Mitch Kipchak has given shock therapy to a team that seemed overmatched and outclassed by younger rosters like the Oklahoma City Thunder and even, at times, their doppelgangers in Lob City.

As Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash near the end of their illustrious careers, the Lakers stand poised not to rebuild, but to transition- just as they have since their last top five pick in 1982.

The Kobe Bryant Era is ending and the Dwight Howard Era is beginning.

But for now, we’re gifted with seeing an at-times-still-dominant Kobe teaming up with the best center the league has seen since, well, the last overpowering center Kobe teamed up with.

So the question is, can these new-look Los Angeles Lakers actually beat the Heat (or even the Thunder) in a seven game series, with history and pressure, and that ever-elusive 6th ring for Kobe on the line?

The Lakers have an overwhelming advantage down low, where they have Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol- two of the more defensively gifted bigs in the game. While Metta World Peace is not the tenacious defender he used to be, he is still a viable option at the 3 who could slow down LeBron James enough for Howard to come in and help. Even with Nash’s deficiencies at defending the point, the Lakers more than make up for that by closing down the paint.

They also have the offensive chops to ball, with Kobe scoring at least 25ppg each season since 2004-05 and Steve Nash leading the league in assists two of the last three seasons and averaging 8.6 per game. The mental image of Steve Nash circling under the basket while deciding whether to target Kobe, Pau, Dwight, Metta (yeah right), or to just take it himself is terrifying for everyone not cheering for the Basketball Yankees.

On paper, this team really is unstoppable. Instead of focusing on athleticism and speed, the Lakers have built around force and precision. They are classically basketball- control the paint and uncover open shots. If you turn the Heat into a jump shooting team, can they prevail in a seven game series? If Westbrook or Harden can’t get to the basket, can Durant’s shooting carry the team? The big debate during the Olympics was about whether Team USA could handle the size Spain brought forth. Now swap Marc Gasol for Dwight Howard. Upgrade? Methinks, yes.

But, before I go crowning the Lakers champs, there are a few things that don’t quite come across on paper……

When the Heat’s Big Three teamed up, each player had to give up the ball more than he was accustomed to doing. Now that they weren’t each the alpha-dog on their respective teams, they had to learn to share the ball.

The difference in Usage Rate between their 2008-09 and 2011-12 seasons was as follows: Bosh -4.5/ Wade -3.6/ LeBron -1.5. Obviously, Bosh gave up the ball the most as he had to completely restructure his game and his mindset once he got to South Beach. LeBron, being the best player in the galaxy, gave it up the least.

So, who becomes the Bosh of the Lakers? The difference for LA is that it’s not as much about shot attempts as it is ball-handling (usage rate weighs FGA much more than it does ball-handling stats like assists and turnovers). Kobe is well-known for his unparalleled shot-creation and ubiquitous #heroball, while Steve Nash is legendary for his ability to make the right decisions and find the open shot. Nash, Dwight, and Pau are truly a force, but Kobe is the wildcard. He and Nash claim they’ve discussed basketball strategy and think they can make it work. We’ll all have to wait and see.

If the Lakers want to beat the Heat, the Thunder, or really any team, Kobe has to give the ball up more and trust the system he is in.

He has to believe in and put faith in the fact that letting Nash run the show will get him more open looks.

He has to trust that feeding Pau and Howard can, at times, be the best play.

He has to trust that he may end up being just another option on the PnR.

In short, he has to become the Chris Bosh of the Lakers. If Kobe picks his spots and lets Nash run the offense, the team will be better off for it. The 2012-12 Lakers are just like the 2010-11 Heat…the only people that can stop them are themselves.

The pieces are there to get Kobe that allusive sixth ring he would betray his own grandmother for. The question isn’t about talent or basketball fit or strategy. It’s about whether the guy who couldn’t get along with Shaquille O’Neal, who refused to play for the Charlotte Hornets, and who still thinks he’s better than Michel Jordan can really let someone else run his offense. If this really is the Steve Nash version of the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami and Oklahoma City better get ready, because they’re going to  bring the hurt!

If it’s still the Kobe-jacks-up-covered-threes Lakers, Durant can go ahead and book that standing June reservation at the Miami Four Seasons.

Follow SCIC Writer Dakota Gardner on Twitter at @dakotagardner 

Tags: Chris Bosh Dwayne Wade Dwight Howard Kobe Bryant LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers Miami Heat Steve Nash

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