Dwight Howard Trade Does Not Make the Lakers Title Favorites
Obviously, this is a fantastic day for Laker fans. The team has leapt into legitimate title contention by nabbing the ever-elusive Dwight Howard, a player who can compensate for some of their defensive issues while not demanding too much of the ball.
This is a coup for Mitch Kupchak, who remains the best at pulling off big, favorable deals. Champagne all around. A nod to the Sixers for getting Andrew Bynum; thumbs up to the Nuggets for getting Andre Iguodala.
But I believe that some are going too far in praising what Los Angeles has. On ESPN, you can read that the Lakers are the "team to beat." At NBC, you can read that the Lakers just became the league's best team.
Assuming the deal goes through, we should have a little patience before such declarations are made. The Lakers would be improved, but improvement does not preclude the existence of important flaws.
First of all, Los Angeles would still have the two-center issue. Pau Gasol plays best at the 5 spot, closer to the rim. Also, he's too slow to handle perimeter power forwards. If Los Angeles were to play a team like Miami, the "Chris Bosh at the 5, LeBron James at the 4" lineup either forces Gasol to the bench or compels Los Angeles to play a far worse replacement.
This small-ball scenario could be troublesome for Los Angeles when facing off against OKC as well. Antawn Jamison is one of the worst defensive players I've ever seen, no hyperbole. Do you really want him guarding Kevin Durant?
I have a lot of respect for Dwight Howard's defensive game, but the Lakers were tied (with Orlando, actually) for 13th in defensive efficiency last season. Are we to presume that Los Angeles becomes defensively elite after adding Steve Nash and Jamison and replacing Drew with Dwight? They should be good on that end, but not assuredly great.
While the Lakers have four awesome offensive players, there are diminishing returns to combining stars whose roles either overlap or do not mesh. Nash and Kobe Bryant do their best work when initiating offense. Pau and Dwight do their best work when involved in an offense. There are only so many basketballs (the number is "one," I believe).
Steve Nash should form a wonderful screen-and-roll pairing with Dwight Howard, but then what does Kobe Bryant do? What does Pau Gasol do? The elements for a great offense are there, but I'm not sure how such an offense can incorporate all the stars at once. When you say, "Pau is the fourth option!" that is as much a testament to redundancy and waste as it is to just how talented the Lakers are.
Los Angeles also carries one big, aggregate injury concern. I have much respect for their trainer, Gary Vitti, but his task is daunting. Dwight is coming off back surgery and may miss the beginning of next season. Pau is 32 years old, Kobe is 34 when the season starts and Nash will be 39 before the playoffs start. Though skilled, this squad is creaky.
There is an odd moratorium on speaking of this, but Kobe's play last season was concerning. Despite operating alongside some efficient teammates, Bryant shot more than any year since 2005-2006 and claimed a mere 52.7 true shooting percentage. Kobe slings contested, he is not a catch-and-shoot sniper.
This team will be nice with or without Bryant producing like old, but there is a good chance that he drags on the offense with low-efficiency volume shooting. There is another good chance that a (necessary) reduced role won't be so conducive to his game.
There is also the matter of title path. The Heat have it easy, as the Eastern Conference is depleted and sad. Few would bet the field against Miami making the NBA Finals. The Lakers must fight Oklahoma City and San Antonio for that right, and those teams have played together some. Odds are in your favor if you bet the field against Los Angeles making the finals.
Does it matter that this team has yet to play a minute? I would prefer to wait on some results before declaring Dwight's Lakers the prohibitive favorite. We've had years to contemplate this hypothetical scenario. It's surprising that, when it finally happens, the reaction is an overreaction.
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