January 25, 2013
The Los Angeles Lakers were supposed to compete for a championship this year with the addition of 2-time National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player Steve Nash and NBA MVP hopeful Dwight Howard to their star laden roster of NBA MVP Kobe Bryant, All-Star power forward Pau Gasol, and All-Star small forward Ron Artest. On paper, the Lakers boast one of the most decorated and talented squads that the NBA has seen in recent history. However, championships are not won on paper with theoretical assumptions of talent level. Championships are earned on the hardwood. And, Los Angeles currently holds an underwhelming record of 17-24 on the basketball court. The trade rumors have begun swirling and every Laker except Kobe is up for grabs. Howard does not fill any specific role in the offense, he is the most expendable player, and he shows no signs of real improvement in the league.The Lakers should get rid of Dwight Howard even though they fought hard to usurp him from the Orlando Magic.
The NBA has become a guard driven league. There was an era in professional basketball when any team with hopes of winning a title had to have great front court play and solid guards. Historically, great teams like the Celtics and the Lakers drafted or traded for dominant big men like Bill Russell, Robert Parish, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal. These men anchored defenses, rebounded, and scored in the post to help their teams. They were the backbone of their franchises and led them to numerous postseason victories with multiple championships. But, the league has changed. Michael Jordan proved that some teams could win with marginally talented big men, and could form dynasties with a combination of a high-scoring back court and gifted rebounders. Now, any squad with hopes of playoff success needs great guards coupled with a good amount of rebounding and solid defense to win the games that matter. Great post players are sparse and great centers are almost obsolete, which is why most people (including general managers in the NBA) think that Howard will be a Laker for the rest of his career.
But, someone from the Lakers organization is going to be on the trading block or the chopping block soon. The Lakers have too proud an organization and too storied a tradition to endure losing seasons with decent rosters. The expectation in LA is always to win the NBA title regardless of the talent level in the city, and the head coach is usually the most disposable piece of an underachieving team. However, the Lakers just fired head coach Mike Brown after a 50 win season last year and a disappointing start in 2012-13. They are now paying out the remainder of his contract while paying the salary of a new head coach. They passed on Phil Jackson, the coach who has won more championship rings than any coach in the history of the NBA, who is known to manage multiple egos, and who won five rings in Los Angeles in the recent past to sign Mike D’Antoni, a coach who has never won the big game. Jackson coached a modified triangle offense that relied heavily on his team’s ability to post. It seemed like a good match for Lakers, but Los Angeles went in another direction. D’Antoni is regarded as an offensive genius among his peers, and the City of Angels lacked scoring punch during Brown’s tenure. D’Antoni seemed like the right replacement to rectify the scoring problem. But, the Lakers have been outscored consistently under him. And unfortunately, the Lakers guaranteed him three years salary and are currently paying Mike Brown $10,000,000 to sit at home. D’Antoni and his offense are not leaving town in the near future.
Kobe is untouchable in LA. He could be the best Laker ever. Nash is the one person who is completely selfless on the basketball court and aids team chemistry. Even though he is beginning to show his age, he is invaluable to this roster. The next most viable option for trade is Pau Gasol. Kobe Bryant notwithstanding, Gasol is possibly the most skilled player in LA, and he has struggled with the new offense. Gasol has been hesitant to shoot the ball and was recently benched by D’Antoni for his poor play. However, Gasol is also a legitimate 7′, four time All-Star with career numbers that are similar to Howard’s (18.5 points per game and 9.2 rebounds per game versus 18.3 ppg. and 13.0 rpg. respectively), and he would make a great centerpiece to a struggling team or a superb role player for a good team. But, in his 14th season in the league, few teams would choose to base their team around such a grizzled veteran. Plus, Gasol makes $19,000,000 a year so his new team would have to shoulder that large sum of money for a player in the twilight of his career who is only committed to play for them for one season. Gasol could prove to be a difficult sell. And, his skill set and contract are beneficial to the Lakers. Pau is still an intelligent and talented basketball player who has great chemistry with Kobe Bryant. And in addition to that, his contract ends in the same season that LeBron James’ contract ends. Los Angeles could feasibly make a run to sign James since he commands only $20,000,000 once Pau’s $19,000,000 is off the books.
Dwight Howard is the one piece that could moved easily, and a few teams have shown some real interest in him. The Houston Rockets have thrown money at every free agent that has hit the open market in the last 4 years, and they have coveted Howard for two years. Plus, their head coach could help to polish Howard’s offensive game and utilize his strengths. The Brooklyn Nets have shown peaked interest in signing him and would accommodate his desire to play in the post. The new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers runs a pick and roll offense almost exclusively, and Dwight Howard does not fit the system that he has enlisted. D’Antoni’s offense is in stark contrast to the traditional isolated low post basketball that Howard has played for his entire career. The offensive tenets behind the new system helped Steve Nash earn his two MVP awards by allowing him to distribute the basketball to teammates and pick when to score himself. D’Antoni’s pick and roll offense gets easy baskets for mobile big men and creates shots for open shooters, so it seemed like the perfect offensive set for the Lakers. Theoretically, Nash would control the basketball and get easy dunks for Gasol and Howard off of ball screens, and create uncontested jumpers for Kobe and Artest. But, this offense would have to utilize Howard as the screener in the high post because he sets strong picks and is always the most athletic player on the floor. Unfortunately, Howard sees himself solely as a low post scorer and does not like to roll to the basket. And, ideally, the screener would be a player who can shoot short to mid-range jump shots or finish plays at the rim. Though Howard is extremely effective at setting screens and scoring easy buckets at the rim, Howard is a work in progress when shooting the basketball. He has poor mechanics when pulling the ball into the shooter’s window – the space between the basketball and a players forearms that he peers through to see the rim when he shoots – because he is too muscular. His shooting motion appears stiff and jerky where it should be smooth and fluid as a direct result of his dedication to strength and weight training. While strength and size gives an athlete an advantage on the basketball court, it also diminishes his ability to properly shoot the basketball (see players like Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone at the start of his career, and Alonzo Mourning at the end of his career). Howard cannot hit free throws, cannot make short jumpers, and has been injury prone lately. He is completely limited by the Los Angeles Lakers’ offensive system and by his inability dominate with scoring. Shaquille O’Neal could not shoot the basketball either, but he honed other facets of his game to make him unstoppable in the post. He perfected the drop step, learned the jump hook, and incorporated a spin move to dominate opponents. You have to question Dwight Howard’s work ethic at this point in his career. Howard is still raw and unpolished offensively after 9 years in the NBA. He is all power with no finesse and no touch. Great players like Kobe, Shaq, etc. came back to the league each year with a new wrinkle to their game. Whether they worked on the finer points of shooting, footwork, positioning, or conditioning, they improved themselves every year. Kobe, a shooting guard, worked with Hakeem Olajuwon, a retired Hall of Fame center, on his footwork in an off season to better himself. That is level of dedication that Howard had not shown until last season.
When the trade deadline comes, Dwight Howard will probably be the name that is removed from the Lakers roster. Mike D’Antoni is entrenched in LA for the next few years, Kobe will retire a Laker because of the career that he has built, Nash aids the team chemistry too much to trade, and Pau Gasol is adaptable and valuable to the team. Howard does not fit what the Lakers want to do and he is talented enough for them to garner good players in return for him. Do not be surprised if his uniform color changes in the next few months.