Instant success might be hard to come by for the revamped Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson has warned.

Rebuilt for 2012 with the marquee additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, plus the signing of veteran Antawn Jamison, expectations have risen that a stellar line-up which already comprises Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace can not only threaten Oklahoma City in the West but also go toe to toe with the Miami Heat for the NBA title.

Let’s not get carried away, says Johnson, who now appears on British TV screens as part of ESPN’s coverage.

“The Lakers have a lot of work to do to get there,” the five-time NBA champion declared. “When you’re bringing in a player of the calibre of a Dwight Howard, a superstar in his own right, and then a guy who is probably one of the best passers in the NBA and creators of getting his team-mates shots in Steve Nash, to go along with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, it’s going to take some time for them to gel.

“Because the one thing that the Thunder have over them is a sense of knowing each other.”

That familiarity in OKC could continue to spell contempt for the Thunder’s would-be challengers in the Western Conference. Retaining their core is one plus, despite the uncertainty over James Harden’s long-term future. Then you add in the extra experience gained during their fun to the Finals last season and the natural urge to avenge their 4-1 series loss to Miami.

And, notes Johnson: “The Thunder are pretty good defensive team as well, So the Lakers have going to have to come together and learn how to make stops at crucial times. Right now, we can’t say the Lakers are there. Do they have the potential to be there? Of course.

“But it’s going to come down, not to whether they can score the basketball … but whether they can stop people at crucial times in the last 4-5 minutes. If they can come up with crucial stops to win the game.“

Given how much emphasis Lakers coach Mike Brown has placed in a revised Princeton offense which might accommodate his many options, there has been little spoken about their D.

With Howard imposing himself in the middle, that should not be an area of concern, declares former New York Knicks coach and ESPN commentator Jeff van Gundy. But while there are major pluses from the summer makeover in Los Angeles, there are potential vulnerabilities which could thwart their title hopes – and favour the Thunder.

van Gundy backing Thunder for title (ESPN)

“I favour Oklahoma City to win it all,” van Gundy states. “I think their speed quickness and depth gives them advantages over LA. It could be the turning point in a possible series. LA does have a lot of work to do. They do have an exceptional talent: Andrew Bynum is a great basketball player but Dwight Howard is a huge upgrade.

“He is absolutely dominant defensively, rebuilding and can score. Their starting unit is the most talented in the NBA but do they have the speed and quickness to get over that Oklahoma City hurdle?

“I’m not sure.”

Howard’s late start in training camp due to injury might delay the full implementation of the Lakers’ new system. Only time will tell, Johnson states, if it will be the most effective way to harness the All Star cogs into a single mighty machine, just as it was under Phil Jackson in their last championship charge.

“If it’s not,” the Lakers legend says, “then Kobe Bryant will say: ‘let’s go back to The Triangle’ Players will voice their opinions and say: ‘Mike, it’s not working for us.’ Or he might see it himself, that it’s not working and make adjustments.

“Mike is smart enough to know and Kobe is smart enough to know. They’ll make it work or take some of it and still do some of The Triangle at the same time.”

Miami, he adds, will profit from a relatively comfortable ride in the East. Back the champions to be playing in late June in the Finals.

“I favour the Heat getting there,” Johnson states. “I think it’s going to come down to the Lakers and the Thunder to see who represents the West. And if we see that match-up: Kobe v LeBron, it’s going to break all the records.”

Read a full season preview in the new edition of MVP Magazine – out now  

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