Diego Quezada: Until the Lakers prove otherwise, it's the Oklahoma City Thunder. This question simply comes down to showing deference to the defending Western Conference champions. The Thunder has proven to be a very good team. The Lakers look great on paper, but still haven't played not even a quarter of basketball together. While we know that Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard all fit together seamlessly (at least offensively), Kobe Bryant will have to defer to make this experiment work. Since Kobe forced some ill-advised shots while playing on the Olympic team in London, I expect there to be some growing pains. Don't underestimate the impact of Dwight Howard's injury. He's a 7-footer who literally had a surgeon open up his back. I'd also like to see better fourth-quarter execution out of Mike Brown, whose team blew late leads to the Thunder in the 2012 playoffs. Ultimately, too many questions arise with this team, and they can only be answered on the court.
Mnelik Beligne: Right now, the Thunder. In April, the Lakers could be better. With Dwight Howard's back surgery, Steve Nash's age, lack of chemistry and a roster still without a necessary amount of athletic perimeter players, the Lakers have too many hypotheticals. The Thunder also drafted athletic big Perry Jones and a lineup of him, Ibaka, Durant, Westbrook and Harden would be the most athletic in the NBA.
Jay Ramos: The Los Angeles Lakers. I think OKC will continue to progress and get the best regular season record in the conference, but the Lakers collection of talent surpasses the Thunder's. We have to remember, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are barely 24 years old. They have ascended very quickly, and are years from peaking. The possibility that they don't repeat as Western Conference champions is realistic given the circumstances---the Lakers added a superstar and a All-Star in the offseason.
Surya: It's tempting to say the Lakers are now the better team, but that's just on paper for now. We know Nash is a great playmaker but how will all these new pieces fit together and when will Howard be able to play at 100%? Can he make it through the regular season and be dominant in the postseason? Will Kobe pass the ball during crunch time in an important playoff game? Those are too many questions at the moment while at the same time you have a Thunder team that's already really, really good and the only question is if they can be the best team in the NBA.
2) How will you expect the Heat to defend the Lakers? The Heat used Bosh at the five against the Thunder, but can that work against Dwight Howard?
Mnelik: Unfortunately not. At this point, the Lakers pose the biggest threat to the Miami Heat because of their enormous size and strength down low. Bosh will not be able to handle Howard and neither will anybody currently on the Heat's roster. LeBron can handle Gasol in spurts, but even he would be out of position and likely fatigued trying to defend Gasol for extended stretches. I expect the Heat to sign a big by the end of the season to fill this void at the 5 spot.
Jay: We have to get something clear. And this is directed at Heat fans who constantly moan about the Heat's need for size/girth inside.
Nobody can stop Dwight Howard. And there is nothing the Heat, or any NBA team can do, to consistently contain him, except double or triple team him and force his teammates to beat you, which is deadly considering he's surrounded by three All-Stars.
Players who are big and actually productive are overpriced on the market, and the Heat have no shot at one given the way they have allocated their salary under the current cap for it's trio of stars. Bosh is arguably your best interior defender, and the Heat have tried countless, lumbering veteran bigs over the last two seasons that just haven't been good. Give it up.
Ok, rant over.
Surya: You might as well keep using Bosh, since there doesn't appear to be a better option out there. Besides, although Howard has had some great games against the Heat, it's not like he absolutely dominated them anyway. I don't see many teams out there with elite centers either to "match up" with Howard so I don't see that as being the main issue as far as building an effective team plan against the Lakers. They posed a similar matchup problem when they had Andrew Bynum as well. I fully expect the Heat to sign at least one extra big man to fill out the roster but he won't be the answer either, at least not on his own. It's all about team defense, just like any other opponent, but the Lakers will pose matchup problems. But then again, so do the Heat.
Diego: The Heat should continue to use Chris Bosh as the center. Although Miami might not do that in the teams' regular-season meetings, expect it to happen if Miami and the Lakers play each other in the Finals. Regardless of whether the Heat use Bosh, Joel Anthony or another center, Miami will double-team Howard (preferably leaving Metta World Peace open instead of Nash, Bryant or Gasol). It'll be a team-wide effort to defend Dwight. The Heat should force Dwight to play defense, and Bosh can drag Howard out to the 3-point line. In the 2012 conference finals, Kevin Garnett easily clogged up driving lanes when Joel Anthony or Udonis Haslem was his man. But when Bosh came back, LeBron and Wade had lanes to the basket. And when Garnett tried to roam the paint, Bosh made him pay with his 3s. Miami should use the same formula, even though Garnett and Howard are different players offensively.
Mnelik: No. I think the Thunder and Lakers are notches above the rest of the West, similar to how the Heat and Celtics are in the East. I'm not a gambling man but if I were, I'd bet the house these 4 teams square off in the Conference Finals with both series likely going 6 or 7 games.
Diego: Don't count out the Spurs. The Spurs players probably watched the Finals feeling that they should've been there. I liked how the team basically stood pat this offseason, feeling that they deserve another shot together. The team still has a lot of nice, young complementary pieces who will only get better. But beyond the Spurs, Lakers and Thunder, I don't envision anyone else competing to come out of the West.
Surya: Every team should respect the Spurs, especially if their core is healthy, but I ultimately don't think any other West team besides the Lakers or Thunder make it to the Finals.
Jay: I wouldn't be surprised if the Spurs pulled it off. They have been unbelievable when healthy the last two seasons, and I'm done questioning them until Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili can't walk. The Clippers, Nuggets and Grizzlies have an outside shot, but it's too distant to speculate right now.
4) Will there be any less pressure from the media and fans for the Heat and LeBron to repeat as champions now that the newer story is how the Lakers will succeed with their new roster? Did all of the intense scrutiny have an actual impact on the Heat's first season and could it affect the Lakers this season?
Jay: The Heat's scrutiny, specifically the one around Lebron James, is something we have never seen before. It was a transcendent cultural phenomenon. It was the social media evolution meeting the most popular phenom ever meeting the highest profile off-season move in NBA history. So although it does open the door for the possibility of it, the Lakers probably won't face it to that degree. They will face significant scrutiny, more-so than any other team this year, however.
I don't think it actually had an impact on Miami, because the locker room was very veteran-laden in that first season, and the organization was very self-centered.
I expect significant pressure to be off of Miami, for now, and all of the silly Erik Spoelstra job security questions to shift to Mike Brown.
Mnelik: Yes and yes. The majority of the intense pressure and scrutiny came solely from LeBron James and his legacy but now that he's got the monkey off of his back and silenced critics, the media has to look for new angles. The "Dwightmare" has plagued the NBA for over a year now and now that Howard is cemented as the future of the Lakers, enormous pressure will be on his broad shoulders. I expect the Heat to cruise this season throughout with minimal pressure while the Lakers experience that rock and roll attention Miami had 2 seasons ago.
Surya: The pressure will always be there because they have superstars on their roster and they'll always be on national television front and center with plenty of media coverage as usual. But the sexier story is the Lakers and the pressure for them to succeed with their new star players is not unlike the Heat's story. Already you could see just how much more comfortable the Heat's Big 3 were in their second season playing together so that level of familiarity is only going to be better in their third season together. Both teams can handle the pressure because they're used to it, and in the case of a player like Kobe, they thrive on it.
Diego: The pressure will definitely be on the Lakers. Once the Lakers lose one game, the media will start to speculate about Mike Brown. The intense scrutiny on the Heat did have an impact. LeBron said that he played "mad" during the 2010-11 season so that he could prove others wrong, and went back to being himself the next year. The impact wasn't that big, though, otherwise the team would've never overcome the 9-8 start or the five-game losing streak in March. Never had there been so much pressure on a team during the regular season, and I wouldn't even expect the Lakers' scrutiny to reach those levels this year. The pressure might affect Dwight, whose insecurity and maturity issues were on full display during his yearlong indecision about his future with the Magic.
5) If the Thunder do return to the Finals and get a rematch with the Heat and assuming both teams are healthy and at full strength, can their current roster as it stands have a realistic chance to get revenge on Miami?
Diego: The Thunder absolutely has a realistic chance to win the series. Keep in mind that James Harden was undoubtedly the biggest disappointment of the Finals. Who knows what happens if he plays up to par next year? A lot of the Heat/Thunder games were very close, with just a few plays deciding Games 2, 3 and 4. With an added year of experience, the Thunder should have a good shot against the Heat.
Surya: A realistic chance? Sure, they're an elite team with special players and an unstoppable offensive force in Durant. But if Wade, LeBron and Bosh are all playing to their best and now they can count on Ray Allen's firepower, I still think the Heat are the better team. It might not take just 5 games but the Heat should beat them again if they do indeed meet up.
Jay: Sure it can. Both teams are elite and pretty closely matched. The Heat are still the slightly better team, but the Thunder can realistically beat them, especially considering they're arrow is going up fast, still, and the Heat are probably just about ready to peak with this roster.
Mnelik: Any team with Kevin Durant is going to have a chance to win but I don't trust the Thunders ability to execute offensively. Last year there were 27 teams that the Thunder dominated with sheer athleticism and fast break ability. Then they ran into the 1 team that was just as athletic and could actually switch and defend them, causing Westbrook, Harden and Durant to play tons of isolation basketball. You can't beat the Heat like that in a 7 game series. So unless the Thunder make some considerable changes to their offensive schemes or acquire a legit low post presence, they'll likely fall short once again.