Dwight Howard is plenty comfortable playing with All-Stars—or should be, anyway—and not just because he's been selected to the NBA's midseason showcase in each of the last six years. Believe it or not, some of the Orlando Magic squads on which he's been featured in the past have employed nearly as many All-Stars as the five (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison) he can now call his teammates with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Heck, in 2010-11 alone, the Magic were home to four former All-Stars other than Howard.
Those four? Vince Carter, Gilbert Arenas, Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis.
Okay, so maybe I'm being a bit facetious here in comparing the two squads. Clearly, the 2012-13 Lakers will be the most talented team on which Dwight has ever played. If Kobe, who has five rings and has shared the floor with some great players in his time, thinks these Lakers are more stacked than any edition of which he's been a part, then surely, that same privilege applies to Howard.
Such a dramatic upgrade in the quality of his supporting case is reason enough for Howard to smile...and expect that life on the court will be that much easier alongside players who command just as much defensive attention as (if not more than) he does.
Nobody in LA will attract more of it than Kobe. Dwight has never played with a perimeter scorer in the Black Mamba's stratosphere. Vince Carter is probably the closest Kobe facsimile from Howard's past, and that was when Vinsanity was already well past his prime.
At 34, Kobe's no spring chicken, either, though he still ranks among the most lethal perimeter players in the NBA. It's no small feat that he nearly led the league in scoring last season, with Kevin Durant edging him out down the stretch. Sure, Kobe shot the ball whenever and wherever he pleased in Mike Brown's stagnant offense, but he did so with a bum wrist in his shooting hand.
In any case, Kobe knows how to make teams pay for double-teaming him, even more so when they don't. With Kobe and Dwight on the floor at the same time, opposing defenses will have to decide which they want to double down on.
Not unlike the conundrum in which Lakers' opponents found themselves when Kobe played Robin to Shaquille O'Neal's Batman. In that arrangement, it was Shaq who would wind up draped by the defense, leaving Kobe with easy looks.
But Dwight's an entirely different type of player than the Diesel was. Both play(ed) with tremendous power, but Howard is far more mobile and athletic, preferring to abuse defenders with his speed and leaping ability rather than his sheer mass, as O'Neal once did.
For his part, Kobe understands how such a dynamic can benefit himself and his primary big man, in this case Howard. Bryant may have butted heads with Shaq, but in between the feuds came three championship rings.
Whether the Lakers enjoy similar success with Howard in the middle will depend, at least in part, on Bryant's ability to replicate that tete-a-tete with a different dance partner.
The responsibility won't fall entirely on Kobe's shoulders, though. If anything, Steve Nash, not Kobe, should be Dwight's biggest benefactor as far as easy shots are concerned, be they in the half court or in transition.
In acquiring Nash and Howard, the Lakers have paired arguably the game's best pick-and-roll ball-handler with (statistically) the best pick-and-roll finisher currently known to man. Nash's tight dribble, keen eye for reading defenses on the fly, smooth shooting stroke and ability to throw pinpoint passes with either hand make him the ideal floor general to operate the two man game.
He made that much apparent during his second stint with the Phoenix Suns. He turned Amar'e Stoudemire (i.e. the power forward version of Howard on offense) into a star via the pick-and-roll.
More impressively, Nash's Suns continued to thrive on that end of the floor even as the talent around him fled for other climes. It takes a special kind of player to turn Marcin Gortat into a double-double machine.
Though, with pick-and-roll passes like this, it's easy to see how:
Gortat's no slouch, of course. At 6'11" and 240 pounds, he's a wide body who can really move and finish thanks to his length and athleticism.
But he's no Howard. At best, he's Dwight's backup, as was the case in Orlando for some time.
Dwight's combination of size (which makes him an easy target for passes), quickness (to move into open spaces and roll toward the basket) and athleticism (to leap for every ball in sight), along with his ability to set jarring screens, makes him the ideal partner in the pick-and-roll.
Jameer Nelson was certainly capable of delivering passes that were easy enough for Howard to catch when the two were teamed with the Magic. Still, it's tough to imagine him ever being as surgical with his dimes as Nash is here:
Keep in mind, those sorts of threading-the-needle passes are more the rule than the exception with Nash. The only "concern" will be whether Dwight, with his strong hands, can reel them in and finish fast enough.
The same applies to the Lakers' new-found fast break. The Suns were among the most efficient transition outfits in basketball during Nash's eight-year tenure in the desert, while Orlando regularly ranked at or near the bottom of the league in that regard, even with Dwight—an athletic, floor-running big man—on the payroll.
The Magic's rationale for such a slow approach made sense considering the way they were set up to win. Their goal under Stan Van Gundy was to funnel perimeter scorers in Dwight's direction on defense, and then plunk Howard in the middle of a "four out, one in" scheme, with three-point shooters stretching the floor, on offense.
Van Gundy didn't necessarily discourage the exploitation of transition opportunities, though that was hardly the crux of Orlando's attack. The same could be said of the Lakers, who won't exactly be running with the bulls this season, not with an aging roster, Mike Brown's emphasis on defense and limiting possessions, and Eddie Jordan's installation of the Princeton offense.
Still, there will likely be some leeway for Nash to let loose on the break and find a dashing Dwight for powerful slams like this:
Speaking of the Princeton offense, the Lakers' use of Pete Carril's masterpiece should open up a slew of one-on-one possessions in the post for Howard. As Coach Nick of BBall Breakdown notes below, the Princeton is designed to begin with a pass into the center, who's typically positioned in the high post but who can just as easily be moved down low:
The sheer spacing of the Princeton offense should open up the middle of the floor for Dwight, as should the constant movement of player and ball that the scheme itself encourages. With so many stars in perpetual motion, opposing defenses will have that much more difficulty keying in on any one player.
That is, without leaving someone (perhaps even Dwight) all by his lonesome.
And, contrary to popular belief, Howard is an effective and efficient low-post player. His strength, fleetness of foot and quick hops allow him to force his way through or maneuver his way around his man before concluding the play at the basket with authority:
To be sure, Howard's post moves aren't always pretty—certainly not as aesthetically pleasing as those of fellow Lakers big man Pau Gasol—though they end with the ball going through the hoop more often than not.
What's more, with a high-post passer like Pau, Dwight won't need to concern himself with banging bodies on the block so often. Gasol is arguably the most skilled front-court player in the NBA today, and was a savant when running big-to-big pick-and-rolls with Andrew Bynum in years past:
As tremendous a target as Bynum was—with his soft hands, long arms and seven-foot frame—Howard is his superior in this regard, for the same reasons mentioned earlier (i.e. quickness and athleticism). The Lakers' implementation of Princeton principles doesn't figure to rule out the retention of a twin tower two-man game, especially if it's anywhere near as potent with Gasol and Howard as it was with Pau and 'Drew.
The same goes for the high-low action that Gasol and Bynum used to run. Pau is superb at delivering the ball into the low post, where the recipient—be it Bynum or Howard—can go to work immediately.
The only real downside to Dwight's new offensive role in LA is the Lakers' lack of three-point shooters, in comparison to the bevy of gunners who were on hand in Orlando. Nash may be the most accurate marksman in the NBA, but he and Jodie Meeks are the only guys on the Lakers' roster who'd be deemed reliable in that regard based on recent results.
Then again, Kobe's percentages from long range should improve on account of a fit wrist, a lighter work load and more open looks. So, too, might Metta's results see something of a spike now that he's back in shape amidst an offense with which he's familiar from his days with the Sacramento Kings.
The same goes for Steve Blake, who nailed 37.6 percent of his three-point attempts while playing for Eddie Jordan's Washington Wizards, albeit nearly a decade ago.
Whether the Lakers can shoot or not, there should be more than enough avenues at Dwight's disposal through which he can seek out easy points. After all, he'll be but one of four elite players in Purple and Gold this season, and, last I checked, everyone else will still be limited to five guys at a time with which to contain them.