Five ways Dwight Howard helps the Lakers
For over a year, the Lakers couldn’t get themselves out of what appeared to be a little batting slump.
They clearly hit the ball out of the park by landing Chris Paul. But the umpire (NBA Commissioner David Stern) ruled it a foul ball. It then appeared the Lakers whiffed when they traded away Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher. Then they repeatedly hit balls that landed foul. They acquired a promising point guard in Ramon Sessions, but he couldn’t handle the playoff pressure. A bloated payroll made Deron Williams skeptical of wearing purple and gold. Harsher tax penalties stemming from the new labor deal convinced the Lakers they needed to save more money.
But they stayed patient at the plate. The Lakers hit a home run by acquiring Steve Nash (three years, $27 million), using the trade exception stemming from the Odom deal to make that happen. The Lakers continued making contact when they signed veteran forward Antawn Jamison for the veteran’s minimum ($1.4 million) and re-signed Jordan Hill (two years, $7 million).
And now, in acquiring Dwight Howard and ridding themselves of Andrew Bynum’s immaturity, the Lakers hit a grand slam.
This time, Stern allowed the Lakers to round the bases. With such a move, the Lakers become NBA championship favorites because Howard substantially helps them in five ways:
1. The Lakers’ defense will improve significantly. By nearly every statistical measure, Howard is superior to Bynum on defense. Howard won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award in three of the past four seasons. He finished this past season first in rebounds (14.5) and third in blocked shots (2.15); Bynum ranked third on the boards (11.8) and sixth in blocks (1.93). According to Synergy Sports Technology, Howard fared better than Bynum in isolation plays (Howard 25th; Bynum 75th) and on spot-up shots (Howard 46th; Bynum 86th). On paper, Bynum is technically better in pick-and-roll sets (Bynum 31st; Howard 44th). But that doesn’t account for plays where Bynum avoided helping out on defense either because of his lack of mobility or effort.
Say what you will about how Howard handled his Orlando exit, but his effort never suffered. That showed the most defensively, which will play a large part in ensuring Mike Brown’s staple stays strong. Howard’s presence makes everything for his teammates easier. Nash has a more dependable teammate to help out if he gets beat on pick-and-rolls. Kobe Bryant can conserve more energy and use it for his scoring. Although Pau Gasol is a willing defender, he doesn’t have the same bruising strength Howard possesses. And with Metta World Peace appearing this off-season in peak condition, it’s likely he can help complement Howard’s paint presence by stopping wing players along the perimeter.
2. Howard’s athleticism will make the Lakers a faster team. With or without Howard, the Lakers weren’t going to have problems scoring. Nash remains a master at running the pick-and-roll. Bryant would score more off the ball instead of in isolation. Gasol could receive easier looks through the spacing and passing the Princeton offense provides. And Bynum would’ve still been a force in the paint. But those elements masked an uncomfortable reality. The Lakers were still a slow team.
Howard, at age 26, possesses a burst of speed that no other big man can match. Because Howard’s role on offense will prove drastically different than his one-man-show role with the Magic, the best way to maximize touches will involve “rim running.” That’s the term Brown uses to describe his frontcourt players immediately sprinting to the basket after a defensive stop or a rebound. Bynum performed that duty with mixed success, partly out of a lack of mobility and partly out of inconsistent will. With Howard, that athletic presence will always be there.
3. Once Howard fully rehabs his back, the Lakers should have no health concerns regarding their center. The moment the hoopla dies down over his arrival, Howard will have to face a key question. How will his back hold up? Howard told The Times’ T.J. Simers that it feels fine. The Lakers also likely performed their due diligence in ensuring it won’t be a major issue. So even if it’s possible Howard would experience limitations at the beginning of the season because of his back, it won’t be a long-term issue. Before this past season, Howard had missed only seven games in seven seasons. Meanwhile, Bynum had missed an average of 31 games in the previous four seasons because of numerous injuries. Even if Bynum avoided a major injury last season, his overall health record hardly matches Howard.
4. Howard is a better fit with Nash and Gasol. Even with the Lakers fielding an incomplete roster last season, they still had one of the league’s best scorers (Bryant), the second-best center (Bynum) and one of the league’s top forwards (Gasol). Individually, the three did fine. Bryant turned back the clock and finished second in the league in scoring. Bynum posted career highs in points and rebounds. Even though Gasol’s scoring average hit a career low (17.4), it reflected well on how he adjusted to a facilitating role. But as a unit the inconsistency remained constant. Bryant took too many shots. Bynum’s effort level swayed. And Gasol’s aggressiveness and mid-range jumper weren’t consistent.
With Howard’s arrival, Gasol won’t take as much of a back seat as he would have with Bynum. The Princeton offense will utilize Gasol’s spacing, passing and team play much better than if he just operated out of the high post. Howard’s superior cutting and off-ball movement will also free up Gasol to move more around the basket and receive more looks.
Howard also fits better with Nash. Synergy tabs Howard as the second-best “roll” man in the pick-and-roll. Considering that play sums up Nash’s playmaking abilities, the two will have an absolute field day running that set together. Nash has a reliable option to run the break. And when Nash runs around the court trying to find a crack in the defense, Howard will make the necessary cuts and screens to create wide-open looks.
5. The Lakers have their next franchise player. Howard doesn’t just make the Lakers favorites to win the NBA championship (regardless of what Vegas oddsmakers say). He gives the Lakers their next franchise player. That is a hefty burden, considering Bryant has two more years on his massive contract. Perhaps he retires after that, or maybe he doesn’t walk away then, knowing he still has enough mileage and a strong-enough supporting cast to win more NBA championships. But the Lakers have at least set themselves up better for the post-Bryant era.
It appeared the Lakers set up Bynum to be their next franchise guy. While the Lakers always took the smart approach in understanding his size is a rare luxury, Bynum was only suited to be a complementary player. It remains unclear if he will stay fully healthy on a long-term basis. Given a larger responsibility this past season, Bynum squandered it by giving inconsistent effort and disrespecting many in the organization. He also didn’t have enough of the outward personality to embrace the attention that comes with being the face of the Lakers.
Howard boasts all those necessary characteristics. It’s absolutely critical he doesn’t get overly wrapped up with all of this attention. But regardless of how immature he looked during his prolonged standoff with Orlando, Howard still consistently produced on the court. Now that he’s with the Lakers, he can enjoy the best of both worlds. He’ll soak in the Hollywood glitz and glamour. Howard will also ensure that the Lakers consistently win. As he’ll soon realize, those two elements always go hand-in-hand in L.A.
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