Now that the improbable has become reality for Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s important that we go through the entire process of excitement, overreaction, player-hating and the inevitable reality check. I’m not sure what the timeline is supposed to be for all of that stuff, but I’ll gladly take up the burden of reality check right now because somebody’s got to do it.
One of the curses of Egotastic! HQ being in Hollywood is that we get terrible LA sports radio and, in the wake of Howard’s arrival, we’ve reached a new low of bad form as every voice coming out of my speakers crowned the Lakers as 2013 champs. I even heard the intolerable Max Kellerman suggest Kobe Bryant is better than Michael Jordan because Bryant never stopped his NBA career to play baseball. I’m not making that up either. So with all of that in mind, here are my reasons why you can’t crown the Lakers as the inevitable 2012-2013 NBA Champs.
Oklahoma City is Built to Stop the Lakers Over Seven Games: the combination of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka (with a Nick Collision replacement coming off the bench) was coached and designed to stop Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in four out of seven games in any Western Conference playoff series. And since playoffs is how we measure the elite NBA squads, this is a crucial point with OKC set to dominate the West for the next 3-5 years. Swapping Dwight Howard in and Andrew Bynum out won’t change OKC’s rotation, approach or plans when it comes to their defense. Howard is a defensive improvement over Bynum with his energy and shot blocking ability. Unfortunately this doesn’t help the Lakers because stopping Ibaka and Perkins from scoring is A) pretty easy and B)not their problem in the West right now. If Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook weren’t afraid to go at the 7-foot Bynum after penetrating, the 6-11 Howard isn’t going to change their minds. Howard is a better shot-blocker than Bynum but not so much better that he'll change OKC's approach.
If you want to argue that Steven Nash is the piece that gets L.A. past the Thunder, I’ll want you to tell me how he’s going to stop Westbrook and how Nash is going to get Kobe more shots than he already gets. Playoff games come down to third quarter adjustments and responses to those adjustments. Down by six with three minutes on the clock in Games 5-7, Kobe is going to revert to form and NOT pass to Nash for an open look even though Nash’s shooting is the exact upgrade Los Angeles needs in the backcourt. But that’s another analysis for another time. Let’s stick with Dwight Howard.
Kobe Bryant Won’t Share the Spotlight With a Superstar Big Man: As he enters his late 20s, Dwight Howard is coming into his prime as a pro. This is key because Kobe Bryant bristled during Shaq’s prime on the way to four Finals appearances. Pau Gasol’s softness (don’t be fooled by 2009) and Bynum’s youth made it very easy for Bryant to line those guys up behind his Alpha Dog style of leadership and please don’t under estimate the importance of Phil Jackson in that equation. So now here comes Howard who’s polished as a defender and rebounder and who’s expected to take another leap as a scorer right now if he wants to be one of the all-time greats. He’s supposed to get there taking 12 shots a game? Because that’s all he’s going to get on a good night with Nash looking to feed Bryant and Bryant taking all he can get. If anything, I expect Gasol’s shooting to increase because Bryant trusts him more than the “new guy” Howard will be.
With this collection of talent, chemistry, form and so many intangibles are going to be the difference between success in the playoffs and more disappointment.
Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace Are Still Learning Mike Brown’s Offense: Kobe Bryant was superhuman last year ignoring a laundry list of injuries in the lockout-shortened season. I know this because I saw him jacking up even more questionable shots than usual when the team’s offensive attack would breakdown. The years it took for Bryant to buy into and trust Phil Jackson’s offense are irrelevant now. Word is Mike Brown is installing a new offense coming into the 2012-13 season and 33-year old icons tend to respond to things like this as if they’re suggestions, not rules. Also, Andrew Bynum was just now growing comfortable as a scorer in Los Angeles and his low post game is currently better than Howard’s in my opinion because it was so classic and complementary to everything else the Lakers had. Howard is efficient as a scorer…..when he’s in an offense built around his style. Welcome to LA where you’re the third or fourth option. Pau Gasol might be the best suited to Dwight Howard’s arrival because Gasol is so versatile and talented at the offensive end of the floor. Thus my belief his scoring will actually go up. Metta World Peace on the other hand will be relegated to a strictly icing-on-the-cake role in whatever offense this team ends up running.
Most importantly, Mike Brown has to be the one to get everybody comfortable with whatever Kobe Bryant leaves to them on offense. That’s a lot of teaching and ego management that we haven’t seen yet.
The Eastern Conference is Changing: Howard leaving the East is a huge shift in the NBA’s balance of power. As dominant as Miami looked over the best from the West, Boston has shown they’re simply not going away no matter how old they look; Indiana is perfecting that old star-less Pistons formula for success and who knows what other teams might surprise us in the coming years. The point is, Dwight Howard on the Lakers makes a Finals matchup against Miami almost a coronation. The ’11-12 Lakers could have taken down the Heat if you ask me because of the huge low post mismatches. But that’s not the only way to look into the NBA’s future. Nobody saw Dallas winning in 2011, even though that team had been to the finals and been very good for a very long time. Similarly if a team other than Miami represents the East in the Finals during Dwight Howard’s time in LA, it’s not necessarily an automatic win for Los Angeles.
Essentially I’m saying getting out of the West is no easy task with a dominant OKC ready and able and LA’s only easy matchup in the Finals is against a supremely talented Miami team.
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