Blockbuster Dwight Howard Deal Vaults Lakers Back into Championship HuntThe 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 11:14 PM