When you're the Los Angeles Lakers and you have an all-time great in Kobe Bryant who's under contract for two more seasons and might bid the NBA adieu after that, you're not trying simply to field a team that can win a playoff series or two, nor one that will congeal into a contender over time.
Your goal is to play for (and win) all the marbles right now, before the window slams shut on your fingers. Hard times may well be ahead once "Black Mamba" hangs 'em up, so you'd better get yourself another Larry O'Brien Trophy while the gettin's good.
And when the Miami Heat are the team to beat, as they are now by virtue of taking the title this past June, every move toward championship contention is made with them in mind at some point during the process.
In acquiring Dwight Howard, perhaps it wasn't Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak's explicit goal to beat the Heat. But the deal that brought Dwight to L.A. (and sent All-Star Andrew Bynum to the Philadelphia 76ers) was clearly made with the goal of hanging another banner at the Staples Center, even if it wasn't explicitly acknowledged during Superman's introduction over the weekend.
And since all roads to the title will likely run through the sands of South Beach, it stands to reason that Dwight was, in some capacity, brought on board to defeat the Heat.
No offense to the Oklahoma City Thunder, of course. They still hold the keys to the Western Conference crown until further notice, thanks largely to their core of young Olympians in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
But those who still profess so strongly and loudly the supremacy of the youthfully exuberant Thunder after the Lakers' latest makeover are quick to forget that L.A. came within a pair of fourth-quarter choke jobs of building a 3-1 series lead over OKC in their last playoff clash.
This despite sporting the league's least productive bench, from which head coach Mike Brown had to call upon Steve Blake in crunch time while Ramon Sessions was busy wetting himself.
To be sure, OKC figures to improve this season, even without any significant upgrades to its roster, by virtue of the natural growth of its young stars. And as far as Dwight's concerned, Kendrick Perkins—his supposed defensive foil—will be there to stifle him once again.
Although, per Basketball-Reference.com, when matched up with Perk, Dwight's averaged 16.3 points (on 52.3 percent shooting) and 12.6 rebounds during the regular season and 18.9 points (on 55.8 percent shooting) and 14.2 rebounds during the playoffs. It's possible, then, that Perk's perks as a "Dwight Stopper" have been somewhat overstated.
Regardless, the Heat remain the kings of the NBA castle that the Lakers are most eager to occupy themselves. That being said, Miami may not be able to call it home for long now that Kupchak has so masterfully remade L.A.'s roster once again.
At present, Miami's greatest weaknesses are at point guard, where Mario Chalmers is the starter, and at center, where Chris Bosh often plays out of position on account of Joel Anthony and Dexter Pittman being...well, Joel Anthony and Dexter Pittman.
The Heat have been lauded for winning the title with such a non-traditional approach and pushing the envelope of professional basketball in the process.
However, head coach Erik Spoelstra's decision to more or less scrap traditional positions in favor of letting LeBron James and Dwyane Wade run the show from the wings seems less like a courageous master plan and more like a strategy borne out of necessity.
Simply put, the Heat couldn't play conventional, 1-through-5 basketball all that effectively because they didn't have the personnel to do so. As such, they opted (smartly) to play to their strengths (i.e. smothering team defense, breathtaking play in transition, driving and kicking to shooters in the half court) and either minimize their weaknesses or hope that they wouldn't be exploited.
Luckily for Miami, OKC was in no position to put a hurt on its point guards per se, nor to punish the Heat inside. Westbrook may be listed as a point guard, but he's much more akin to that of a scoring combo guard who, like D-Wade, is at his best when attacking the basket. If anything, Thabo Sefolosha was Chalmers' closest OKC counterpart in the most recent finals, and he barely made a peep during the series.
Inside scoring, too, proved to be a problem for the Thunder. They lacked (and continue to lack) a scoring presence down low, and their best facsimile (Ibaka) does most of his damage on put-backs and pick-and-pop jumpers.
The Lakers, on the other hand, should have no such issues against Miami now that Howard is in the fold and Steve Nash has leapt aboard. Even at the age of 38, Nash is still the sort of point guard who can operate amidst (and, at times, run circles around) Miami's defense, or at least command attention in a way that opens up easy opportunities for his teammates.
In three games against Miami since the "Heatles" came together in the summer of 2010, Nash has averaged 10 points and 10 assists while hitting 50 percent of his shots.
And that was with a hodgepodge of replacement-level players in Phoenix. Think he might fare a bit better with All-Stars like Kobe, Pau Gasol and Howard drawing the eyes of Miami's defense?
Howard, in particular, has dominated the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat in the past with the Orlando Magic and should be able to continue that trend in L.A., assuming his back doesn't prove to be a persistent problem. Howard has faced Miami eight times over the last two seasons, during which he's averaged 19.1 points (on 55.2 percent shooting from the field) and 16.8 rebounds.
Which is to say, Dwight has dominated the Heat of late.
Granted, those gaudy numbers came when Howard was the center of the basketball universe in Orlando. He'll no longer be THE man in L.A., but rather one of four such men, with his exact spot on the team's totem pole still to be determined.
Not that the Lakers would be dumb enough to forget that their strength up front puts them in perfect position to exploit the Heat's interior frailties. Consider that L.A. has managed to beat the Heat just once in four tries since the summer of LeBron, with Bynum and Gasol combining to average 31 points (on 52.1 percent shooting) and 18.3 rebounds.
Howard should help to boost those numbers by virtue of replacing Bynum as Gasol's partner in crime up front. Say what you want about Dwight's aesthetics on the offensive end, but unlike the mercurial Bynum, he'll put forth a consistently superb effort every night he's out on the floor without worry.
The fact that Howard managed to put up 20.6 points, 14.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game amidst his self-created circus of "Indecision" last season is a testament to just how dominant a force he is in today's NBA, irrespective of personal circumstances.
The Lakers will need him to be that (and more) if they're to shoot back to the top of the league's food chain as quickly as the impending cloud of pressure will suggest they should.
And once they get there, they'll need Dwight to do what he's done since he first landed in Florida back in 2004—hammer the Heat inside.
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