Dwight Howard to the Lakers

It’s happening: Dwight Howard, the petulant behemoth who kept reminding you he was still playing for the Orlando Magic and was not happy about that fact, is heading to L.A. On the one hand, this is wonderful news, because the horrid and unending “Where will Dwight Howard go?” blather will finally stop invading actual sports news (well, for now, but more on that in a second). 

On the other hand: Ugh. L.A.? The Lakers, withered and shaken these last two seasons, already looked like they were inching closer to championship contention again now that they have Steve Nash. And the Lakers somehow managed to orchestrate a four-team trade that resulted in them getting Dwight Howard and not giving up Pau Gasol, which is both improbable and irritating.

The Lakers lost Andrew Bynum, who is off to Philadelphia to fulfill his destiny as the 22-12 big man on a seventh seed, but they managed to keep one of their two big men to pair with Howard. Much as everyone expected with all of the other rumored deals involving L.A., it really boiled down to the Lakers swapping Bynum for Howard. They’ve essentially upgraded from one talented, immature big man with questionable big-game chops to another talented, immature big man with questionable big game chops, only this one is more of a stout defender and is definitely more of a professional on the court (unlike Bynum, Howard saves all of his immature antics for when he’s off the court, i.e. deciding what to do with his next deal).

Does this mean the Lakers are the immediate favorites in the West? I’m sure lots of people will say yes, but I disagree. I still think Oklahoma City is the team to beat (not because of some stupid “They’re the reigning conference champions so it’s on them until someone beats them” thing; because they’re just that good and should be even better next season). Howard, the best big man in basketball (which admittedly isn’t saying much), gives the Lakers a very solid interior defensive presence, a pretty-good-but-not-amazing post presence and yet another marketable, charismatic star. He doesn’t give them stolid, dependable leadership in the locker room or on the court. He’ll help their defense, but he won’t do much for their offense. Last season, the younger and more fragile Bynum averaged about 18.7 points per game to Howard’s 20.6 points (Bynum also had a higher free-throw percentage and fewer turnovers) despite having Kobe hogging the ball all the time.

That is, of course, the main issue that will determine how well these Lakers do: How much is Kobe still Kobe? The self-professed Black Mamba is reportedly thrilled with L.A.’s efforts this off-season, as well he should be. Steve Nash improves their overall offense and increases the on-court fluidity of a team that had grown stale and rote last year. Dwight Howard is, in spite of his offensive limitations, the best guy you can find at his position right now. Pau, perpetually overlooked Pau, is still an elite big man, and having him alongside Howard in the paint still seems like an upgrade on what they had last year.

Kobe? Kobe is about to turn 34. Kobe is about to enter his 17th season of NBA basketball. Kobe has played in more than 1,300 games (regular season and playoffs), logging more than 51,000 minutes in those games. And last season, Kobe still averaged his 27 points, but he did it while putting up more shots than he had at any point since his epic what-me-pass-? season in 2005-2006, producing his lowest field-goal percentage (43 percent) since his second year in the league and posting his worst three-point shooting percentage (30) in a decade. The guy also had more turnovers per game (3.5) than he’d had since the 2004-2005 season and his lowest assists-per-game average (4.6) since the 2005-2006 season — all while logging 38 minutes a game.

Does Kobe have enough left in him to play at a very high level? Of course. His numbers were pedestrian for him but would be absurdly good for almost any other player in the game. But does Kobe have enough left to play at a high level while not forcing shots in his quest to move up the all-time NBA scoring ranks (he’s currently fifth)? That’s far more questionable. The entire point of adding pieces like Nash and Howard should be to help diversify L.A.’s game and to ease the scoring burden for Kobe. It will be interesting to see if he finally starts deferring and letting other people do most of the work for most of the game, or if he refuses and keeps throwing up a shot almost every chance he gets.

Oh, and get excited to potentially hear all about Dwight Howard Free Agency Speculation again in a year. A “source” (presumably someone in Howard’s camp) told ESPN.com that Howard is sticking with his idea not to re-sign with L.A. immediately, so that he can be a free agent next summer and decide for sure where to sign for his next maximum contract. This is terrific! He’ll still likely re-upping with the Lakers, because he won’t find that caliber of talent in Dallas or Brooklyn, but his source told ESPN.com that if L.A. doesn’t work out, Dallas will be there waiting. Splendid. So he can act like a baby again if he doesn’t get his way and he can threaten to leave the second something irks him. Man, he and Kobe are going to get along so well.

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