Is Dwight Howard or Rajon Rondo a Better Pairing with Kobe Bryant?
And their struggles may be leading them to an unlikely trade partner (the Boston Celtics) in a potential Howard-for-Rajon Rondo swap.
When the Lakers lured Howard from the Orlando Magic and pried former All-Star Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns over the summer, L.A. had guaranteed itself at least a Western Conference Finals appearance.
Of course, any hoops head knows that simply collecting talent doesn't in itself ensure on-court success. Not without first taking into context important intangibles, like fit and cohesion.
With the relationship of Howard and Laker legend Kobe Bryant apparently souring by the day, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has reportedly been forced to consider offers for his All-Star center.
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According to CBSSports.com NBA Insider Ken Berger, the Lakers have engaged in "preliminary" trade talks with the Boston Celtics. Boston has endured its own share of struggles this season (including a rash of injuries to their rotation), but it has largely weathered the storm and maintained relevance in the Eastern Conference.
With the Celtics surging after what appeared to be a season-derailing injury to All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo (torn ACL), the Boston GM may be considering flipping his own franchise player on the trade market.
The potential Lakers-Celtics swap is still in its infancy, but the names involved are what really have fans and media alike buzzing (via Berger's report):
The centerpieces of the possible deal, which hasn't gained any traction, would be Howard and Rajon Rondo.
Any time two names as big as these are floated (and linked) on the rumor mill, it's going to lead to a more thorough examination. And this was no exception.
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ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard spoke with Kupchak about the rumored deal, and the Lakers exec adamantly denied any truth behind it. "I haven't talked to Danny Ainge in weeks," Kupchak said.
Kupchak then reiterated the team's position on whether or not it would trade the impending free agent:
I made the statement a week or two ago that we're not going to trade Dwight Howard and that hasn't changed.
Only Kupchak and Ainge know whether or not the players were actually discussed, but the real question here becomes whether or not it's something they should consider.
For the Lakers, the answer is a resounding yes.
The happy-go-lucky Howard was a horrible match for the stone-faced, serious Bryant. Bryant knows that Howard holds tremendous importance in the team's immediate hopes for success and has tried meeting the big man's desires for more touches by undergoing an experimental run as a pass-first guard.
It's not as if Bryant can't play alongside a talented big. In fact, he's racked up each of his five championships with some of the premier post players in the game (Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum).
But Howard's a different type of interior presence, no matter how badly he's tried proving he's not. His strengths lie not in the isolation looks with which the aforementioned trio produced, but rather in his explosive athleticism. His pleading for involvement grows increasingly hard to stomach with each half-hearted screen and disengaged roll to the basket.
He's one of the few players on L.A.'s roster actually suited to succeed in coach Mike D'Antoni's system, if he just follows the mold previously formed by Amar'e Stoudemire. Howard's intimidating presence near the basket should even improve D'Antoni's defense, as the coach has rarely been afforded a defensive anchor of Howard's caliber.
But, again, the actual result has fallen miles short of the on-paper potential.
In his defense, Howard is still suffering through a laborious rehab process after undergoing back surgery in April 2012. And a torn labrum in his right shoulder only complicated matters.
But his unashamed, ill-advised comments about approaching this season with one eye clearly focused on his future (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com) just reiterated the fact that none of us know just how limited he truly is.
Rondo, meanwhile, would represent two major declarations for the Lakers organization. Two that Lakers brass would have difficulty in explaining to the team's rabid fanbase.
For starters, his acquisition would be an outright confirmation that the 2012-13 season for the Lakers is finished. It's something that many have already assumed, but the franchise has publicly held on to its lingering playoff hopes. And the Lakers do enter the All-Star break just 3.5 games back of the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets.
Rondo won't return to action this season, no matter what his agent, Bill Duffy, might think (via A. Sherrod Blakely of Comcast SportsNet). He'd be a potential coup for the team's future success but nothing more than a street-clothed sideline presence this season.
The point guard would also be the team's admission that Steve Nash was not the L.A's answer at the position. The 39-year-old has failed to make the kind of offensive imprint that fans had anticipated, and he's been a defensive liability throughout his 17 NBA seasons.
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But there may be enough potential positives for Kupchak to make those concessions.
Rondo has the athleticism and quickness to thrive in D'Antoni's scheme. He's a threat to drive (and finish) coming off those screen-and-rolls or find whichever of his four teammates happens to be open.
He has an innate understanding of where his players like getting their touches. He'd have no problems finding a scorching Bryant in isolations. Or feeding a cutting Earl Clark or Antawn Jamison. He'd understand that Jodie Meeks is a better threat from the right side of the court, or that Metta World Peace is a more efficient perimeter shooter from the corners (via NBA.com).
Should the Lakers and Celtics complete this trade?
Rondo would also move Bryant away from the toughest perimeter defensive assignment. He has the speed and lateral quickness to keep pace with today's fleet point guards and the length and toughness to hold his ground with bigger off guards.
As for the Celtics, they may not be a better team without Rondo (even if the numbers suggest they are), but they've proven they can win without him.
They have the requisite veteran talent to make a sustained postseason push but desperately need an interior presence like Howard to offset their rebounding woes. (They have a minus-3.7 rebounding differential.)
Boston's also in line for a major transformation over the coming seasons, but the presence of Howard and the team's storied history could allow them some major free-agent pull and keep them a championship contender.
This deal might never get off the ground.
But if it does, these clubs will be thrilled that it did.
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