For the second time this summer, the Lakers have stepped to the plate and knocked one out of the park.
First, it was the sign-and-trade deal bringing Steve Nash to Los Angeles in exchange for ... nobody.
Now, the Lakers have acquired Orlando's Dwight Howard, a truly elite player who at 26 is only now entering his prime, and have done so at as small a cost as could possibly be expected -- Andrew Bynum and a future first-round pick. The four-team trade, which also includes Denver and Philadelphia, will be submitted for league approval Friday morning, sources told ESPN on Thursday night. And it will not include Pau Gasol.
Allow me to summarize the analysis you'll see below in two words:
If the Lakers were on the cusp of contention in the Western Conference after the Nash deal -- very competitive but still a tick below Miami and Oklahoma City -- they're now at worst in the center (no pun intended) of the conversation and at best could lead it. Assuming Howard recovers well from the back surgery from which he's currently rehabbing -- and I don't think the Lakers would have pulled the trigger without doing their due diligence -- the Lakers have added a top-five player and the most dominant defensive force in the NBA to a lineup already including Nash, Gasol and, of course, Kobe Bryant.
Add solid enough bench depth, particularly in the frontcourt with Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill, and this has the makings of a truly special team.
Last week, I laid out the reasons it was worth it for the Lakers to see this through to the end, despite all the Dwight-related fatigue from basketball fans across the universe. Bynum is an outstanding player and should have a great career, but Howard is a transcendent talent and represents an upgrade for a few reasons:
1. Defense. In four of the past five seasons, Howard has led the league in defensive win shares. In the fifth season (this past one), he was third. He is mobile in the pick-and-roll game and has the ability to shut down a team's attack at the rim. Before the trade, the team's greatest liability was on the defensive side of the ball. Nash is not a stopper. Kobe is getting older. Gasol is underrated, but isn't Dennis Rodman. Bynum's commitment to defense has always fluctuated. On the other hand, Howard's ability both to clean up mistakes from the weakside and cover massive chunks of territory on the floor allows teammates both to help with more confidence and stick to their men, depending on the situation.
With Howard, the Lakers have instant credibility as a defensive team. Mike Brown is a happy man.
2. He fits better with Nash. Simply put, Howard is a devastatingly effective finisher in the pick-and-roll. Over the past two seasons, Synergy grades him as the most effective player as the roll man in the P-n-R among players with enough possessions to be statistically relevant. He also is great as a cutter, and has the mobility to move in and out of the lane as Nash probes for space. And in those instances in which the Lakers choose to utilize a Nash-induced fast break, Howard will be awfully handy. Having kept Gasol, the Lakers field a team with offensive versatility that is off the charts.
3. Athleticism. Bynum is a rare figure, with perhaps the softest hands of any big in the league. But athletically, he's not Howard, and athleticism is an attribute in short supply with these Lakers.
Bottom line, Howard represents an upgrade in almost every way over Bynum, assuming good health for both. Even as a post player, Howard might not have Bynum's aesthetic quality, but the ball goes in the basket just as much, if not more. Two seasons ago, measured by points per play, Howard actually outscored Bynum in the post, and last season, he wasn't far behind. But the idea Howard isn't a very effective offensive player simply doesn't hold water.
There are risks. Howard's back is a concern. He's not going to sign an extension before the end of the season, and until he re-ups with the Lakers, the possibility exists he could go somewhere else. I don't think he will, but it's a possibility. However, the same, of course, was true of Bynum. The Lakers now have four guys capable of scoring as No. 1 options, meaning everyone from Kobe on down is going to have to give a little. And obviously the Lakers have committed themselves to spending about eleventyzillion dollars in payroll. Next season, there's a good chance they'll be deep into the super tax while their revenue-sharing obligations increase exponentially. Even with their massive Time Warner TV deal, we're talking about some serious financial outlays.
It wouldn't surprise me if next season's entertainment between the third and fourth quarters is the passing of a collection plate through Staples Center. If so, please give generously.
The Lakers deserve it. The transformation of this team over the past couple of months has been nothing short of stunning. The Lakers have gone from a team hoping to somehow remain relevant in the final stretch of Kobe's career to a true title contender and potentially one of the most entertaining teams the franchise has ever produced. That's no small statement. They have acquired among the greatest point guards in league history and now their next superstar. This while keeping everything but the one piece (Bynum) that became totally redundant with the arrival of Howard.
The circumstances under which they are operating have never been tougher, but once again, the Lakers got it done.
Because that's what they do.