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Recasting the debate

NBA PREVIEW: WESTERN CONFERENCE

Lakers' roster makeover radically alters West, making them the team to beat and reducing the Thunder from favorite to solid contender

October 28, 2012|Ben Bolch

Ready for a solitary run to the top of the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder desperately needed a foil.

The Lakers provided a pair in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.

The superstar acquisitions made the Lakers feel like the Lakers again, meaning everyone else no longer felt like themselves.

The Thunder went from a runaway front-runner to merely a contender, and that was before it traded James Harden.

San Antonio went from the old guard to stuck in a time warp, its aging collection of stars seeming even more passe.

The Clippers went from the talk of the town to a backroom whisper.

The West is the Lakers' to lose, and it would take some doing. The NBA's best starting lineup in a generation should provide plenty of Ws but few Zs when you consider the possibilities.

Howard could block shots, throw down one-handed dunks and head to Hollywood for movie cameos.

Kobe Bryant could show that he's 34 going on 25, his knees rejuvenated and his offensive workload reduced.

Nash could be the best passer and the wittiest guy in the room ("We don't walk around the locker room saying, 'Remember, it's Kobe's team,' " Nash deadpanned after Bryant had reaffirmed his status as the franchise player).

Pau Gasol could bask in the security of staying put.

Metta World Peace could flash a more svelte physique while keeping his elbows to himself.

It might be enough to make the Thunder concede defeat had it not retained Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, though the loss of Harden is a blow to its hopes of a return trip to the Finals.

"We're going to do what we do," Coach Scott Brooks said before the Thunder traded Harden to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and draft picks. "Come out and play hard every night."

Given the Lakers' active off-season, that might not be enough.

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ben.bolch@latimes.com

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