The NBA world's year-long national nightmare came to a not-so-shocking conclusion last Thursday evening as the Orlando Magic traded Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a blockbuster four-team deal.
The deal involved other All-Stars like Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala, but those two almost instantly became afterthoughts.
Acquiring Howard gives the Lakers the franchise's fifth Hall of Fame-level center in his prime, and the basketball world rightfully melted at the team's new Fantastic Four.
Howard will join new Lakers point guard Steve Nash and incumbent stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to create a top four that can only be rivaled by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Howard is widely considered the best center in the league and should bring nothing less than the 20.6 points per game, 14.5 rebounds per game and 2.1 blocks per game he put up last season with Orlando.
That's led some fans across the sports landscape to instantly decree the Lakers as championship favorites, unseating the Miami Heat before Howard even put on his No. 12 jersey. Fans of other NBA franchises have understandably been a little less bullish, wondering aloud whether general manager Mitch Kupchak put together too many alpha dogs for the L.A. experiment to work.
But a little less than a week after the Howard trade finalized, what have real experts had to say?
Well, let's just say the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
The Los Angeles Times' Mark Medina was particularly (and rightfully) gushy about the Lakers' offseason. Medina wrote that nearly every transaction in free agency and via trade was the "perfect" move for the Lakers, and the team is now the automatic championship favorite.
This acquisition automatically makes the Lakers championship favorites. Even with Bynum's growth, Howard has clear separation in pretty much every facet of the game. That includes defending and running the pick-and-roll, navigating double teams, staying healthy, athleticism and providing a full effort. Bynum has an edge over actual post moves, but that's splitting hairs.
Even Grantland's Bill Simmons, an unabashed Laker hater and Boston Celtics fan, could not find flaws in the Howard trade for his despised rival. Marking L.A. as a "winner" in the deal, Simmons agreed with Medina, saying the Lakers played the situation perfectly and came out with the absolute ideal final piece to the team's nucleus.
His overarching point was, even though the Lakers lost an elite player in Bynum, L.A. was replacing him with a better player and strategical fit at the same position. With Nash and Kobe Bryant not the most deft defenders at this point in their respective careers, Howard is the perfect foil in the paint for any player that gets by either Laker guard.
If scientists could create basketball-playing robots from scratch and were asked to create someone to play with Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and Nash, basically, they would create Dwight Howard: a ridiculously strong shot blocker/rebounder who can run the floor and doesn't need the ball to be happy. In the span of 3.5 seconds, the Lakers went from "old, slow, can't defend anybody" to "who's stopping us?"
According to ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi, the "who's stopping us?" question won't be answered by the defending champion Heat. Proclaiming the Lakers' Big Four superior to Miami's Big Three, Markazki points out that L.A.'s super team will come without the hoopla and guarantees of the 2010 Heat signings:
There will be no pep rallies filled with smoke and pyrotechnics when the deal officially goes down. Los Angeles usually saves such bells and whistles for championships, but such a celebration in June is certainly what the Lakers have in mind now with Howard and Steve Nash.
And there will be no proclamations of winning "not six, not seven, not eight" titles, but you have to believe that is what Kobe Bryant is thinking now as he sits next to LeBron James in London and counts his number of championship rings.
While everyone seems to be jumping on the Lakers' championship bandwagon, there is still one place (other than Miami) where the Heat are still considered contenders: sports books. The folks at Vegas Insider and Sportsbook.ag have the Lakers and Heat equal 11/5 favorites, but Bovada.lv disagrees, favoring the champs at 9/4 odds.
Which is the better team?
Lost in the Lakers' celebratory haze is the fact that LeBron James is still far and away the NBA's best player and is coming off the second-greatest 12-month span for a basketball player ever. Supporting superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are spending their entire offseason recovering from injuries and should return to form next season.
If each player on both sides plays to optimum potential, there is no denying that the Heat have the better three stars.
Regardless, there is only one undeniable truth of Howard's trade to the Lakers: The 2012-13 NBA season just got a whole lot more interesting.