NBA Eastern Conference: How the Dwight Howard Trade Affects the Power Structure
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Any time an elite player changes teams in the modern superstar-dominated NBA, it affects the makeup of the entire league.
Naturally, the trade shook up the Western Conference, vaulting the aging Lakers into prohibitive favorites (a step, perhaps, above the Oklahoma City Thunder) to win the West. Howard's defensive presence, strength on the fast break and ability to get to the rim make the Lakers' frontcourt (Howard and PF Pau Gasol) the most formidable in the NBA.
But the trade did more than improve the Lakers: With several big-name players switching uniforms, the effects of the four-team deal stretched as far as the East Coast.
Let's take a look at a few ways in which the Lakers' trade for Dwight Howard changes the scope of the Eastern Conference.
1. Andrew Bynum's Arrival in Philly Turns the Sixers into Instant Contenders
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In the NBA, limbo is hell, and the Philadelphia 76ers have been stuck in limbo for nearly a decade.
The Sixers have languished in the undesirable purgatory between contender and lottery team for a long while. Since the 2003 season, the 76ers have never finished higher than sixth in the Eastern conference. Their lowest finish was in 2010, when they had the seventh-worst record in the league.
Without a top lottery pick in their recent past, the Sixers grew into an athletic young team that lacked the requisite alpha-dog star to contend in the NBA.
With former Lakers center Andrew Bynum on the roster, the 76ers have a franchise player at last, one who makes them a true threat in the East.
The primary piece that the Sixers relinquished was wingman Andre Iguodala, who is an elite defender and a strong slasher but one who is wildly overpaid and too inefficient to carry a contending team's scoring load. In short, he's Robin when he was expected to be Philly's Batman.
In exchange they got the 24-year-old Bynum, who finally managed to stay healthy last season, earning his first All-Star appearance on the way to posting a double-double for his season averages: 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds to go along with nearly two blocks a game.
Philly affords Bynum the opportunity to shoulder the scoring load, which SG Kobe Bryant wouldn't allow him to do in Los Angeles. Given the relative lack of elite post presences in the Eastern Conference, Bynum has a chance to cement his legacy as an elite scorer next season, if he can stay healthy.
Of course, the deal is a risk: Bynum is a free agent next season, has a long history of injuries and has character issues in his recent past (ranging from his suspension for clotheslining J.J. Barea to his unwillingness to sit in on Lakers' huddles).
Still, the Sixers needed to take a big risk like this. For better or worse, the Sixers are no longer stuck in NBA limbo.
2. Orlando Is a Surefire Lottery Team
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From Orlando's perspective, the Dwight Howard trade is inexplicable.
True, Howard forced their hand by exercising his player-option for next season and then demanding a trade. True, if they had waited too long, they risked losing him in free agency and getting nothing. True, if his back injuries had lingered through next season, his trade value might have been shot.
Of course, none of these concerns actually matter when looking back on the trade, because the Magic did get (almost) nothing in return for Howard.
Generally, the team giving up the best player in a trade can be justifiably considered that deal's loser, but circumstances required the Magic to trade Howard. Still, there was no reason for the Magic to accept such a paltry return. The Magic got absolutely nothing they wanted in the trade in exchange for one of the five best players in the NBA.
They cleared absolutely no cap room and are still saddled with the awful contract of SF Hedo Turkoglu, who will make nearly $12 million next season. They acquired no marquee players in the deal, with Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington marking a shockingly unimpressive return. Finally (and perhaps most egregiously), the three first-round picks that the Magic acquired are lottery-protected, meaning they likely won't turn into anything more than role players.
This is an embarrassing end to an embarrassing chapter in the Magic's history, and it will be years before the Magic recover. With Afflalo and struggling PG Jameer Nelson now the team's best players, the Magic are headed to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
They'd better get used to their newfound status as East cellar-dwellers, because they'll likely be stuck there for at least another few years.
3. Atlantic Division Is the Most Competitive in the NBA
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Ever since the Big Three arrived in Boston, the Celtics have been the kings of the Atlantic Division.
This season, their crown is finally in doubt.
With Celtic-killer Andrew Bynum moving into the division, the C's rebounding weaknesses might now become more glaring. Boston's depth trumps that of the Sixers, but it remains to be seen whether the Celtics will be able to win a playoff matchup with a tough Philadelphia frontcourt rotation that includes Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen, and Bynum.
The Sixers aren't alone in the fight for the division. The Brooklyn Nets look to have improved with the addition of wing Joe Johnson to a core that includes Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez. The Knicks, who beefed up by adding Marcus Camby, are also a threat to compete for the division title.
Thankfully for C's fans, the Green also made some deft moves this offseason, adding guards Jason Terry and Courtney Lee to improve upon Ray Allen's production, and bringing back Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox to bolster a bench that, on paper, is one of the deepest in the league.
The Celtics still look like the best and deepest team in the division, but with Andrew Bynum leading the new-look 76ers, the C's task might not be the cakewalk it's been for the last few seasons.