Aaron Colen, Sports Editor, Aaron.Colen@chickashanews.com
Coming into this season, most would have thought that the biggest challenge to the Oklahoma City Thunder's Western Conference crown would be the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers brought in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, as well as reserve Antawn Jamison, meaning that, on paper, they had upgraded a weak point guard position, improved at center with Howard over Andrew Bynum, and added some much-needed depth with Jamison.
As they say, that's why the games aren't played on paper. They're played on the hardwood, and that's where the Lakers have looked absolutely terrible.
One of the most talented rosters in the NBA has only managed a 10-14 record, and the Lakers aren't on the upswing, either. They've lost six out of their last eight games, despite the fact that Kobe Bryant is putting up career offensive numbers even at this late stage in his NBA career.
It's not time to write the Lakers off just yet. Howard is still recovering from offseason back surgery, and is clearly not 100 percent, and Nash has sat out much of the season with a leg injury.
However, there is some indication that this roster, with Mike D'Antoni as the head coach, just doesn't work well together.
Steve Nash is a pick-and-roll point guard, playing with a 2-guard in Kobe Bryant who has never played in a pick-and-roll offense. Quite the contrary, Bryant excels in isolations and post-ups, usually controlling the ball for much of the shot clock.
Dwight Howard, once he gets back to his normal, athletic self, could do well in a pick-and-roll offense, but has been on the record asking for more touches on the low block.
D'Antoni is a coach well-known for running high-tempo offenses in Phoenix with Nash and most recently with the New York Knicks. But this Lakers team is older, and not built to run the floor like teams he has coached in the past.
No one seems to be on the same page, and there are some fundamental differences in the styles and philosophies of the players and coaches on offense.
On top of that, the Lakers' defense has been horrible all season.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder has been cruising. Despite concerns about how the team would fare without star sixth-man James Harden, Oklahoma City is 19-4 and has won 10 games in a row, dating back to Nov. 24.
Even while backup point guard Eric Maynor works back into shape after injury, and newcomer Kevin Martin continues to become more comfortable with his new teammates, the Thunder looks to be the favorite to repeat as Western Conference champions at this early point in the season.
Right now, the three teams that appear to be the biggest threats to the Thunder are the San Antonio Spurs (18-6), the Memphis Grizzlies (14-5) and the Los Angeles Clippers (16-6). For what it's worth, Oklahoma City has already lost to the Spurs and the Grizzlies this year, and needed overtime to beat the Clippers on Nov. 21 at home.
It's still early, but right now the Thunder looks to be right on track, and the Lakers have a long ways to go before being reconsidered as a potential Finals team out of the Western Conference.