At this point, the Andrew Bynum-Dwight Howard binary is fairly inescapable. One star center or the other figures to be a Los Angeles Laker for a long time, and until Howard agrees to an extension or a new contract, he'll be bound to L.A. by the rumor mill.
The idea of Howard becoming a Laker is clearly intriguing to enough people to remain prominent in the NBA discourse, and considering the resources that L.A. has at its disposal, a union between the trade market's top player and the league's most glamorous franchise is entirely possible.
But Bynum certainly has his advocates, and deservedly so. Despite the fact that Howard is one of the all-around best players in the NBA, many would still argue that the Lakers would be wise to stick it out with their immensely talented big man rather than chase a dream of something more.
Plus, a functional one-for-one trade of Bynum for Howard requires far more consideration than absolute evaluations of either player's skill sets. Though either big man would eventually become the centerpiece for the post-Kobe Lakers, in the meantime they'd make for an offensive complement, a defensive anchor, and a teammate to Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, among others. A conclusive fit is more important than some abstract judgment of which player is superior.
Unfortunately for Mr. Bynum, no matter how we change the parameters of the conversation, the outcome is no more favorable. Howard is the better player and the better fit for L.A., for reasons that apply as much on the offensive end as they do on defense.
The Post as A Blessing and A Curse
Andrew Bynum is among the league's best back-to-the basket bigs, while Dwight Howard's work on the low block is often regarded as mechanical or technically lacking.
Despite that divergence in perception, the two players are incredibly comparable in terms of their efficiency; according to Synergy Sports Technology, Bynum scored just 0.01 points per possession more than Howard in post-up situations last season—a year in which the Magic offense was in particular disarray and Howard in particular played a season below his usual standard.
That's incredibly important considering that post play is the greatest asset that Bynum brings to the table. Howard may often be criticized for his form, but quickness, footwork and basic move-counter combos have made him nonetheless formidable in an area of his game that's perceived as weakness.
The fact that so many people see Howard as a subpar post scorer speaks more to the nature of his incredible potential than any limitation in skill; it's entirely fair to say that Howard could be even more effective on the low block than he is, even without taking away from the fact that Howard does tremendous work down low as-is.
Yet what really separates the two players on offense is their outright reliance on post-up opportunities. Last season, Bynum used 701 possessions in the post relative to just 43 as the roll man in pick-and-roll scenarios; Howard, by contrast, was logged with 661 post-up possessions to 102 in the pick and roll. That's a pretty significant difference in the allocation of each player's offensive possessions, and one that doesn't necessarily bode well for Bynum's organic chemistry with the newly acquired Nash.
Nash can certainly feed a post player and space the floor, but doing so marginalizes one of the game's most effective playmakers. Bryant, Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol, Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake could all set up Bynum on the block and theoretically help to space the floor, but part of the assumed reason why the Lakers acquired Nash was to breathe some new life into a stale offensive system.
Were Bynum able to play off of Nash effectively, there would be no problem whatsoever. But considering his mixed bag of pick-and-roll work, it's tough to say definitively that the two would make for a particularly natural pairing:
A lack of quickness, overly ambitious moves and iffy screen work contribute in part to Bynum's lacking roll game. All of that doesn't at all negate the impact of his size and length, but it limits him from being the kind of consistent pick-and-roll partner for Nash that Howard has already proven himself to be.
High ball screens were the primary playmaking mechanism for Stan Van Gundy's offense in Orlando, and it was on the basis of that action that the Magic's entire floor game opened up. That started with Howard's strong picking and quick rolling, and Nash makes every step in a Howard pick-and-roll sequence all the more dangerous.
Consider these kinds of plays, but with Nash orchestrating the action rather than Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson:
Such a staple could give the Lakers an entirely new offensive life. Howard is far more mobile than Bynum, and thus wouldn't get in Pau Gasol's way as much as Bynum does. He'd also make a great pick-and-roll partner for Bryant, and at worst, would draw even more defensive attention away from the Lakers' designated shot-getter.
Howard comes from a situation in which his ability to attract extra defenders triggered open shots for the rest of his teammates, and though Bynum does some truly fine work in his own right, he still doesn't command the same kinds of double-teams and sunken coverage due to the fact that pick-and-roll defense requires an opposing defense's more complete attention.
Who Can Be Trusted to Be in Place on the Back Line?
Offense is supposedly where Bynum has some advantage over Howard (an idea that is a bit flimsy when we account for where that offense is and should be coming from), but the defensive end is where Howard has few equals.
His ability to cover all players involved in screen-and-roll action sets him apart as one of the league's finest, and that's before we even begin to dig into his work as one of the best pure help defenders around and a tremendous on-ball post defender. He's the complete defensive package, and able to transform whichever team is lucky enough to have his services.
Bynum, while bringing even greater size and reach to a congruent position, has yet to exhibit such gifts. Howard didn't exactly come into the NBA as a fully formed defender, but he also wasn't as flighty in his attentions as Bynum is and has been.
When Bynum is engaged in how the Lakers are defending, he can be a positive force on that end. But far too often he can be caught ball-watching or simply miss his mark outright on a particular rotation, a failure that forces him into foul trouble and surrenders easy baskets.
The Lakers have raised their offensive ceiling by acquiring Nash, but his addition to the rotation also puts an added pressure on L.A.'s back line. Fisher, Blake and Sessions weren't exactly effective defenders for Los Angeles last season, but all three have less glaring defensive weaknesses than the newly acquired Nash.
In truth, all three may be roughly equal in their defensive ineptitude. But Nash's limitations are so well-known and so pronounced that opponents know to seek him out and exploit him—a stark difference from Fisher's oddly persistent reputation as an effective defender, for example.
That makes it all the more important that the help D be in place precisely when and where it needs to be, and Howard is both more effective and more trustworthy than Bynum in that particular regard.
He cleaned up entire lineups of supposedly subpar defenders during his time in Orlando, and pushed the Magic into the league's top three in points allowed per possession in three consecutive seasons. He's more than capable of doing the same for Nash, Blake, Antawn Jamison, a laterally slowed Metta World Peace and an often ground-down Kobe Bryant.
In that way, Howard not only gives the Lakers a chance to redefine their offensive philosophy, but also build on their recent defensive successes. Everything learned and gained under Mike Brown in the last year would have further import and application—a shift that goes well beyond what one would typically attribute to a single player.
Whereas Bynum would solidify the future of the franchise and give L.A. a talented star to build around, Howard brings much of the same production and allure while granting the Lakers an even greater upward mobility.
All of that added potential would allow the Lakers with Howard to excel beyond what we can reasonably expect of their future with Bynum; there's nothing at all wrong with working or building through the talented Laker incumbent, but his promise alone isn't reason enough to deny the surer thing—especially when Bynum has done so little to showcase the defensive capability that Howard demonstrates with regularity.