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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Blockbuster Dwight Howard Deal Vaults Lakers Back into Championship Hunt

The Las Vegas oddsmakers continued to tout the L.A. Lakers as championship contenders long after the Lakers ceased to deserve such respect--primarily because betting odds reflect the opinions of the betting public and are not, contrary to popular belief, predictions about what will actually happen--but now that the Lakers have acquired Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic as part of a four team deal the Lakers are legitimate championship contenders for the first time since 2010. The Magic got rid of some bad contracts and acquired some assets for the future, the Denver Nuggets landed All-Star Andre Iguodala and the Philadelphia 76ers now have an All-Star big man (Andrew Bynum) plus a veteran shooting guard (Jason Richardson) but this complicated transaction will primarily be remembered for what Howard does--or does not--accomplish as an L.A. Laker, so this article will focus on Howard and the Lakers.

After the Dallas Mavericks swept the L.A. Lakers out of the 2011 playoffs, I declared in no uncertain terms that the championship window for the Lakers as currently constructed had definitely closed:

"If you understand how the Lakers achieved the success that they did from 2008-2010 and you understand what went wrong in 2011 then you can only draw one conclusion: the Lakers as presently constituted are not likely to qualify for the playoffs in 2011-12. If you think that statement sounds crazy then consider the reality that since 2008 the eighth seeded team in the West has won 50, 48, 50 and 46 games; four of the Lakers' five starters started all 82 games in 2010-11, with Odom filling in for Bynum when Bynum was hurt, and the Lakers ended up with 57 wins. If the Lakers keep the current roster intact it is highly likely that they will not enjoy similar health at the top of their rotation and it is also highly likely that Bryant's minutes will have to be further reduced as a concession to all of the mileage that he has accumulated; every minute that Bryant is not on the court is a minute that must be filled by one of the Lakers' ineffective bench players."

I then concluded:

"The Lakers must get younger, deeper and more athletic. Historically, the Lakers have always responded in times of crisis by acquiring the best available big man: they nabbed Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975, Shaquille O'Neal in 1996 and Pau Gasol (who really should not be mentioned with those other guys but was a serviceable second option for three-plus years) in 2008. The obvious, logical solution for the Lakers is to find a way to acquire Dwight Howard but that may turn out to be easier said than done; the Lakers are way over the salary cap and it is not clear what the new CBA will look like."

While the most severe aspect of my prediction did not come true--the Lakers qualified for the playoffs in the lockout shortened 2012 campaign, albeit with their worst winning percentage since the 2006-07 season--the overall picture that I painted proved accurate: the Lakers finished just five games ahead of the eighth seeded Utah Jazz and nine games behind the first seeded San Antonio Spurs. Kobe Bryant had a little bit more left in the tank than I thought and Andrew Bynum stayed healthy enough to make the All-Star team for the first time in his career but even though the Lakers had a better regular season than I expected their weaknesses were once again exposed in the playoffs as the eventual Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder easily dismissed the Lakers in the second round. The Lakers clearly were not a championship caliber team and they clearly needed to upgrade their roster along the lines that I had described in order to become a championship caliber team.

Lakers' management understood what had to be done and the Lakers methodically got rid of some dead weight and maneuvered themselves into position to acquire Howard. Kevin Ding summarizes the Lakers' moves from the past year or so:

"The Lakers essentially exchanged Bynum and Lamar Odom for Howard and point guard Steve Nash--an undeniable upgrade. The Lakers did concede some financial and draft considerations in that swap, but the sign-and-trade deal for Nash to spark the Lakers' offense came about via the trade exception acquired from Dallas for Odom.

Getting Howard without having to give up much more than Bynum or take on burdensome overpaid players was the Lakers' stance all along."

Anyone who just compares Howard and Bynum based on statistics completely misunderstands the true nature of how each player impacts the game: in other words, that person is a "stat guru." Howard is a mobile, extremely athletic, defensive-minded performer who has a rudimentary post game but still scores efficiently because of his prowess in the screen/roll game and his ability to attack the offensive boards. If Nash can make Howard's former backup Marcin Gortat look good in the screen/roll game then just imagine what a Howard-Nash screen/roll play will look like with Bryant on one wing and Gasol either cutting to the hoop from the baseline or stationing himself for the open 15 foot jump shot. Bynum's post moves may be more polished than Howard's but Bynum is not as mobile defensively, plus Bynum is injury prone and immature--yes, Howard is coming off of back surgery but he presumably will return to full health soon and he played in all 82 games in five of his first seven seasons, missing just seven games total.

L.A. Lakers Coach Mike Brown is an excellent defensive-minded coach who got a raw deal in Cleveland and who is capable of leading a team to a championship, much like Bill Belichick survived being criticized by Cleveland's "expert" pundits to lead New England to three Super Bowl titles. Brown walked into a tough situation in L.A. as Phil Jackson's successor but he is the right man to direct an L.A. defense that could be fearsome with Howard protecting the paint, Bryant and Metta World Peace actively checking opposing wings and Pau Gasol permanently shifting to his comfort zone at power forward, where he can use his length and mobility without having to deal with the bigger centers he had to check whenever Bynum was out of the lineup. Steve Nash is a defensive sieve but Howard's Magic teams annually ranked among the league leaders defensively despite a dearth of good perimeter defenders.

Offensively, the arrival of Howard, Nash and Antawn Jamison (who will bolster a weak bench) will make things much easier for Bryant. Howard will command attention in the post, Nash will find the open man and Jamison will be the best second unit scorer the Lakers have had in quite some time (Lamar Odom essentially played starters' minutes because Bynum was out of the lineup so frequently). Bryant will no longer be the primary playmaker, nor will he be the only player who consistently draws double teams; many teams will have to double team Howard and some teams will be inclined to trap Nash to get the ball out of his hands. If the opposing defense tilts toward Howard or Nash then Bryant will get open shots from his sweet spots on the boxes (low post) and elbows (high post/free throw line extended). Instead of having to fight to get open shots, Bryant will have the opportunity to be the recipient of plays created by Howard and/or Nash. Gasol has always been more comfortable in a secondary or tertiary role and Howard's physical presence at both ends of the court will revitalize Gasol's career. The Lakers still do not have a proven scorer at small forward or much of a bench outside of Jamison but their starting lineup is much better constructed--in terms of complementary skill sets--than Miami's; the Heat had to shift Chris Bosh to center, convince Dwyane Wade to accept a lesser role and ask LeBron James to do everything (just like he did in Cleveland) in order to win a championship but the Lakers' stars should mesh together seamlessly: Howard will operate in the paint, Gasol will play his preferred faceup game, Bryant will confront fewer double teams and Nash will be Nash. With Nash controlling the action, fewer Lakers' possessions will end with Metta World Peace launching an ill-advised three pointer.

The only possible concerns that could derail the Lakers' title quest relate to age (Nash, Bryant, World Peace and Jamison are all significantly older than 30) and injury (which can happen to anyone but will be particularly worrisome if Howard's back does not heal on schedule or flares up after initially seeming to be fine).

A fascinating dynamic to watch will be the inevitable "transfer of power" from Bryant to Howard; Bryant was on the other end of such an exchange about eight years ago and he surely learned some lessons from how poorly Shaquille O'Neal conducted himself in the elder statesman role, feuding with Bryant instead of accepting the inevitable passing of the torch. Bryant will likely still be the best player on the team this season--though Howard is without question Bryant's most talented teammate since O'Neal left town--but Howard will inevitably become the Lakers' franchise player either with Bryant by his side or the instant that Bryant retires.

Howard and his new teammates wisely refrained from publicly predicting that they would win a championship, so they are showing a proper and healthy respect for the difficult process of capturing a title (something that James and company did not immediately figure out). The Heat are the reigning champions and they deserve that respect until they are dethroned but--as I wrote three years ago--Howard is the one player who could possibly deny James some rings the way that Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stood in Julius Erving's way during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:14 PM

17 comments

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17 Comments:

At Sunday, August 12, 2012 1:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome analysis as usual, David. I've been waiting 2 days to read your thoughts on the trade.

In one off-season, the Lakers added one of the best floor generals of all time, arguably the greatest pure shooter of all time, the most dominant defensive presence in the NBA, and still has one of the greatest SG in history AND kept Pau Gasol.

Hilariously, it can be argued that Pau Gasol is now the 4th best player on the team.

They also upgraded the bench by signing Antawn Jamison (who shot 53% the last time he played with Nash by the way) as well as 3 point specialist Jodie Meeks and resigned energy/hustle man Jordan Hill.

By the way, Dwight's will be back as good as new. He will be resuming full contact by the end of August and have 2 months to build up his strength and stamina before being ready for the season opener. He had a microdiscectomy through a one inch incision. He probably could have started full activity 3 months ago but early return create a 5-10 percent chance of reherniation so they shut him down for 4 months to be extra careful. There is basically a 99.9 percent chance he is going to come back as good as ever.

And people forget that Metta World Peace after finally getting in shape and fixing his back actually played quite well the last month of the season. If he can maintain that form, this team will be quite formidable indeed.

AND very very fun to watch. :)

As I respect your opinion greatly which would you rather have in the next 2-3 years:

Chris Paul, Andrew Bynum, and Kobe Bryant?

OR

Nash, Howard, Bryant, Gasol?

Thanks and keep up the great work as usual

Dennis

 
At Sunday, August 12, 2012 3:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dennis:

I'd rather have the second group that you listed; Paul is better than Nash but it is clearly preferable to have Howard and Gasol than to just have Bynum.

 
At Sunday, August 12, 2012 9:51:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although the starting lineup is still strong, the bench remains a huge weakness. How are the Lakers supposed to overcome that? Beyond Jamison, the rest of the bench is still one of the worst in the league.

 
At Sunday, August 12, 2012 1:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

The Heat had a weak bench last season but their starters carried them most of the way and the bench contributed just enough for Miami to win the championship; the Lakers could follow a similar blueprint, though it might be tougher for them because their stars are older than Miami's stars. One advantage that the Lakers will have is that their stars have complementary skill sets, while James and Wade somewhat duplicate each other.

 
At Sunday, August 12, 2012 1:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the Lakers bench is not that bad and a decent upgrade over last year. Jamison is older but still a very good scorer and a bargain at the vet minimum. Jordan Hill played well in the playoffs and provides energy, hustle, rebounding, and decent PnR defense off the bench. Jodie Meeks is a young, good 3-point shooter. That's not a bad core.

 
At Sunday, August 12, 2012 5:47:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

David,

Awesome work as always. I had been looking forward to this since I last commented on the other article. I would not be surprised one bit if Kobe sets a career high in FG% this upcoming season. He might even top 50% for the first time in his career since there's so much offensive talent around him now.

 
At Sunday, August 12, 2012 6:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree that the Lakers' bench is better now, at least on paper, but it remains to be seen how an older player like Jamison will perform and also what the Lakers will get out of a career role player like Hill. Meeks is a nice, underrated acquisition. If everything goes well, this could be the best bench that the Lakers have had in a while--but it also seemed like Barnes and Blake would be major upgrades and that never really came to pass, which is why I am reserving judgment about the Lakers' new look bench.

 
At Sunday, August 12, 2012 6:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eric:

Thank you. Someone has to provide safe refuge for people who do not want to be inundated with "stat guru" nonsense or constant updates about reality stars who are married to NBA players.

It will be difficult for Bryant to establish a career-high FG% just because of the nature of the sport and the reality of the aging process; rebounding and FG% are stats that tend to peak during one's physical prime and decline thereafter no matter how much wisdom/experience a player acquires. That is why it is so significant that Pau Gasol's rebounding and FG% increased after he teamed up with Bryant--but the big difference is that Gasol shifted from the number one role to the second role, while I assume that Bryant will still lead the Lakers in scoring this season. If Bryant's role is reduced to scoring 18-20 ppg and he does not have to shoot so many "hand grenades" (shots with the shot clock about to expire) then perhaps his FG% will go up to the extent that you suggested.

 
At Sunday, August 12, 2012 10:36:00 PM, Anonymous Red said...

David,

Good thing Kupchak didn't listen to you and desperately trade BOTH Bynum and Gasol for Howard. You really think that core of only Howard and Kobe would have contended? Now they have Howard, Gasol, Bryant, and Nash. Patience pays off.

 
At Sunday, August 12, 2012 10:37:00 PM, Blogger Dodgerblue15 said...

Great analysis as always David. It seems to me that the bench won't be too bad because the Lakers will most assuredly have at least two of their big four out. In fact, the way the Lakers bench is currently constructed, makes me think they are perfect compliments to Steve Nash. Meeks is a killer three point shooter. Jameson is a stretch four. Ebanks has some athleticism. And Jordan Hill is decently athletic, and great at rebounding and rolling to the hoop. Sub Pau in there and I'd love to see that team roll. I mean, Nash made Shannon Brown, Michael Redd, and Channing Frye look like starters. While I agree the Nash/Howard pick and roll is going to be a beautiful thing, I do believe that one reason Marcin Gortat was so good with Nash is that he could consistently hit that 15-footer (like Amare). Dwight doesn't have that. Pau does. In fact, I love Nash picking-and-rolling with every other starter save Metta.

 
At Monday, August 13, 2012 2:29:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Red:

I never said that the Lakers should try to trade both big men for Howard or that they could contend if they only had Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and 10 replacement level players. I said that the Lakers, as previously constructed, were not championship contenders and that rather than wasting the few remaining top level seasons of Bryant's career it made sense to do almost anything possible to pair him with Howard, including--as a last resort--trading both big men. The significance of acquiring Howard is not just the ability to contend now but also the ability to have a player to build around after Bryant retires. If the Lakers had stood pat and then Bryant retired in two years they would have been left with an aging Gasol and a presumably still immature (and injury prone) Bynum. If they had to give up both big guys for Howard they would be worse off in the short term than they are now but they would still be better off long term than if they stood pat. I made all of those concepts quite clear on a repeated basis, so I suggest that you go back and reread what I wrote rather than being such a smart aleck.

No one could have reasonably predicted that the Lakers could get Nash but it seemed logical to assume that if they could bring Howard into the fold they could also get players like Jamison, Meeks, etc. and build up a decent rotation around Bryant and Howard. Would that be enough to win a title? That is hard to say but I predicted--and was correct--that the previous incarnation of the Lakers was no threat at all to OKC, as we saw when OKC smoked the Lakers 4-1 in the playoffs.

 
At Monday, August 13, 2012 2:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dodgerblue15:

I agree that, on paper, the Lakers have improved their bench but it remains to be seen exactly what the rotation will look like and how well those players will perform. There is a difference in expectation level between being on a non-playoff team or a non-contending team and being on a team that will be expected to win a title.

I don't think that Shannon Brown looked any better or different in Phoenix than he did when he was in L.A. alongside Kobe Bryant; if anything, he looked better in L.A. when he had a role more suited to his skill set. Michael Redd is a former All-Star and the only question about him is his health, not his ability to play. Frye is capable of being a starter for some teams with or without Nash. Naturally, Nash's passing can help just about anyone but I don't think that he magically transformed the specific players you mentioned.

My point about Howard versus Gortat is that Howard is clearly a better screen/roll option than Gortat. My visual impression is not that Gortat shoots a lot of jumpers and the shot chart data at Basketball Reference confirms that impression; according to their records, 329 of his 769 FGAs last season came "at the rim" and an additional 271 came from "3 to 9 feet," meaning that virtually all of his shots came from in the paint. I agree with you that a Nash screen/roll with any L.A. starter other than Metta World Peace should be very effective--but since Howard is the one starter who cannot shoot outside of the paint and since he is the most athletic starter it makes sense to run a lot of screen/roll actions with him and then give Nash a menu of options (Kobe on the wing, Pau facing up, Howard rolling to the hoop, etc.).

 
At Monday, August 13, 2012 9:02:00 AM, Anonymous LakerFan in Jamaica said...

I enjoyed reading your take on the Howard deal. As a Laker fan, I was ecstatic when the news broke that we landed Howard, especially since I remember having the conversation with you earlier this year that pairing Bryant and Howard was exactly what LA needed to do.

As for our bench, I still think the Lakers need one more wing player. Grant Hill would have been ideal. "Stealing" Brandon Rush from Golden State would have been even better. But we do need another seasoned player on the perimeter. Any suggestions?

I'm really excited for the season. I still think Miami is better (and they have all the shooters!!!), plus OKC young core will only improve. But seeing how limited LA's options at improvement were, and how little real assets we had, the Nash and Howard acquisitions have been unbelievable. Major credit goes to Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss.

 
At Monday, August 13, 2012 1:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

LakerFan in Jamaica:

The Lakers expect that the additions of Meeks and Duhon will give them more firepower from the perimeter. I don't know if it is realistic to think that the Lakers will be able to add another significant player any time soon but Lakers' fans can hardly worry about that after obtaining Howard, Nash and Jamison in one offseason.

 
At Monday, August 13, 2012 3:34:00 PM, Anonymous LakerFan in Jamaica said...

I love the addition of Jodie Meeks, who I think could be a real steal for the Lakers. Chris Duhon, I'm not so sure of. He seems to be as inconsistent as Steve Blake, and that's scary given how vital it will be to limit Nash's minutes. But the overall guard rotation has improved so dramatically from last season that I have no complaints.

As far as another wing goes, I wasn't even hoping for a significant player. As Mitch Kupchak said, "No more home runs", lol. But someone like Carlos Delfino would be a huge get. Though whether he'd sign for the remainder of the mini-MLE is doubtful.

All in all, I love the improvements the Lakers made. Can't wait for the season to start.

 
At Friday, August 17, 2012 4:31:00 PM, Anonymous Red said...

Gasol's contract comes off the books in the 2014 offseason. So no, they would not be left with an aging Gasol if Kobe chooses to retire at the end of his current contract (which is the 2014 offseason). Also, you said that the Lakers needed "to do almost anything possible [Bryant] to pair him with Howard, including--as a last resort--trading both big men." This directly contradicts your opening statement "I never said that the Lakers should try to trade both big men for Howard." You say it in the very next sentence!

 
At Saturday, August 18, 2012 12:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Red:

Nothing that you are saying makes any sense or rationally addresses anything that I have said.

In your first hypothetical scenario, if Kobe retires and the Lakers do not have Howard then the Lakers would either have to overpay Pau to keep him as their alleged franchise player or else lose him as a free agent and start from scratch. My point is that it would have been preferable to trade both big men to get Howard than to scuttle the deal over some desire to keep Gasol.

As for the second point, try to work on reading comprehension and understanding nuances/distinctions. I never said that the Lakers' first choice should be to trade both big guys. All I said was that it would be better to trade both to get Howard than to stand pat and do nothing. The Lakers were not going to win a title with Bynum and Gasol. Obviously, it is preferable to obtain Howard while keeping Gasol; I never suggested otherwise.

My bottom line contention has consistently been that the Lakers could not win a title with the Bryant-Gasol-Bynum nucleus and that the Lakers had to blow it up not just to try to contend now but also to have a franchise player for the future. In my estimation, neither Bynum nor Gasol can carry the Lakers after Bryant retires; Howard can.

 

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