The Lakers, Dwight Howard, and the Chance to Win

Darius Soriano —  July 3, 2013

The meetings are over. Over the span of three days, Dwight Howard and his team of decision makers sat through presentations of five teams — the Rockets, Hawks, Warriors, Mavericks, and Lakers — about why he should accept their offer of large amounts of cash and various other incentives and play for their organizations. Dwight has now retreated to Colorado for a few days to consider his options and make a decision.

There are many variables to consider when making this choice, but reports from early in this process state that Dwight’s biggest concern is winning at the highest level. He’s already been the to Finals once and would like to return several times over and, when he does, claim the trophy that eluded him in 2009. So, while media exposure (both domestic and foreign), money, and many other lifestyle factors will play a part in all this, Dwight’s decision will supposedly come down to basketball reasons.

When zooming in and focusing on what matters between the lines of that 94′ x 50′ hardwood, the consensus seems to be that the Rockets offer Dwight the best chance to accomplish his career goals. These plusses have been discussed multiple times, but the Cliff Notes version is that the Rockets have a young superstar in James Harden, a roster of good (and young) complementary pieces, a smart GM who knows how to fill out a roster, and a head coach who was once a fantastic low post player to help Dwight develop that part of his game further (while, supposedly, running an offense to highlight that part of his game). These things are mostly all true, though some of them have been embellished slightly (more on that later).

The Lakers, meanwhile, are portrayed differently. They’re seen as old and not as talented. They’re seen as a team that can’t offer Dwight the role he wants on offense, and a team that lacks the defensive players to thrive on that side of the floor. The Lakers are billed as the team selling a combination of the past (“we’re the Lakers“) and the future (cap space in just one more year!), rather than the team that can win now. There’s some truth in this but, like the Rockets’ case, these negatives have also been embellished somewhat.

The basketball case for the Lakers is actually very similar to what the Rockets are selling. The Lakers have a strong, top tier, talent base to complement Howard. Kobe Bryant’s recovery is surely a question mark and he’d be defying some odds if he comes back to the exact level he was pre-injury. But if we can acknowledge that Kobe won’t be a disaster on the court when he returns (and I  think that’s fair), he’s still one of the better players at his position across the league. Steve Nash is old, but he’s not an awful player. Last year his on court production mirrored what he’s done for the past several years, with a dip in usage and the amount of time he had the ball showing up mostly in his assist numbers. But he’s still a fine floor general and someone who can positively impact the game — especially on offense — for roughly 25-30 minutes a game (preferably the lower end of that scale).

The rest of the roster is a work in progress, but starts with a very nice piece in Pau Gasol. Of all the players who teamed with Dwight last season in L.A., it was Pau who seemed to forge the best chemistry with his front court partner, looking for him early and often in possessions and setting him up for countless easy scores. The Lakers will look to upgrade the shooting that surrounds the aforementioned “big 4” while also brining in players who can better defend their positions (as well as respond better within the team scheme). It’s also not out of the question that one of the those players (likely Gasol) could be flipped for more better fitting pieces that increase the depth while also adding real talent.

As for the offensive system, the Rockets’ and Lakers’ systems aren’t that far off from each other. If you look at the sets the Rockets run, they’ve taken a page right out of Mike D’Antoni’s playbook by wanting to play fast while using the spread pick and roll as the key to initiating their offense. If anything, the Rockets would need to catch up to some of the changes the Lakers made as the year progressed in running more HORNS actions to get Dwight the post and paint touches he seemingly wants more of.

What happened to the Lakers last year was unfortunate in that it was Murphy’s Law realized. What could go wrong, mostly did and that impacted not just the on court product, but the perception of it moving forward. This team is flawed, but most teams are. Whether the team can play together well enough to overcome those flaws is the purpose of an NBA campaign. The team that can do this best, while putting together the most talent, usually sprays champagne on each other after their final game of the season.

How far the Lakers are away from that is an open question, but we shouldn’t act like how close the Rockets are to it is one that’s already answered, assuming Dwight were to play on either team.

Getting back to those Rockets, they’ve put themselves into a position where they’ve both elevated their talent base to be competitive in the chase for Dwight, while also building a roster that will undergo changes in order to accommodate his talent. In fact, it’s already started to happen. They’ve already let go of two contributors to last year’s team (Carlos Delfino and Francisco Garcia) who were rotation players and served as key cogs in the Rockets run to the playoffs. Rumor has it that in a search for a third “star” to team with Dwight and Harden, the Rockets would seek to trade Omer Asik and/or Jeremy Lin. That player is rumored to be Josh Smith, but who it is, while important, may matter less in what accomplishing such a move would mean.

If getting that third player cost the Rockets both Lin and Asik, the Rockets would have turned their rotation — the rotation that makes them a favorable landing spot — over by more than half. Four of their top 8 rotation players could be gone and they’d be replaced by only two players: Dwight and Smith. I don’t know if this makes them a better, worse, or if their improvement would be neutral but the fact that it’s even a question is worth exploring more, even when considering those players would ultimately be replaced.

We should not trash what the Rockets would be doing in order to secure Dwight Howard. He’s worth the fuss. But, when taking everything above into account, the basketball reasons to join the Rockets are not so overwhelming that it’s clear cut. They create the prospect of making the Rockets a very good team with a chance to contend at a high level. I’ve argued in the past that a chance is all one can hope for, but you have to wonder if it’s worth leaving one chance for another.

And the Lakers, with Dwight, would have a chance. They’d also have a roster that is ever evolving to fit around him, more spending power moving forward than the Rockets could offer, and a market that has a history of actually drawing in those players. As Ken Berger wrote, a Lakers’ team with Dwight Howard in house and cap space to add talent is a dangerous thing to fathom.

Again, I don’t want to make this too much about the future, but this is a relevant point when discussing what the on-court product will be and how that plays into what Dwight wants out of his career. In Houston he can have a team that, potentially, will be very good. It will be young and will need to grow together, but it can be a contender. But lets not act like the same can’t be true in Los Angeles with the Lakers. They, like the Rockets, will need to make more moves. The Lakers will need to add some talent and, down the line, fulfill their promise of being a the free agent draw that they’re made out to be.

But, like the Rockets, the Lakers will have their chance to contend. Especially with Howard in house. And, like I said before, that’s probably all he can ask for.

Darius Soriano

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