On August 9th, the Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets reached an agreement on a 12-player, five-draft-pick trade that lands the Lakers big man Dwight Howard. It’s the icing on the cake in what had already been a very successful offseason for the Lakers, who also acquired point-guard Steve Nash on a sign-and-trade with the Phoenix Suns earlier in the summer.
By trading for Nash, the Lakers added an offensive catalyst. According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, teams run by Nash (the Mavericks and the Suns) led the league in offensive efficiency for nine seasons between 2001 and 2010. Last season, Los Angeles struggled on offense outside of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Mike Brown chose to uninstall the triangle offense the team had ran for over a decade and players outside the leading trio failed to contribute to the attack. Nash, the ultimate shot creator of his generation, arrived to solve that issue, even if the fit with Bryant is questionable.
But by adding the 38-year-old Nash to the 34-year-old Bryant, the 32-year-old Gasol and the slow-footed Bynum, the Lakers ended up opening a hole on defense. Brown was hired as a defensive-minded coach and at first, he did solve the team’s issues on that end of the floor. But towards the end of the year, as Ramon Sessions was inserted in the lineup, the Lakers regressed or were run over by the super athletic Thunder in the second-round of the postseason. With the addition of yet another minus defender, things projected to get worse.
Enter Dwight Howard. Howard (shown below at the adidas Nations event with Pitt signee Steven Adams of New Zealand) is a transcending defender, capable of disrupting pick-and-rolls, locking down opponents in the post and controlling the glass. Because of Howard, and Stan Van Gundy, the Magic posted some of the best defensive metrics in the league (third in defensive efficiency and fourth in opponents’ effective shooting on Howard’s last full season in 2010-2011, fifth in opponents’ scoring in the lane last season) despite the fact their rotation featured the likes Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson.
Because of his terrific ability to move laterally, defend in space, block shots when help-defending and hedge-and-recover, Howard should be able to make up for the Lakers’ projected deficiencies guarding the perimeter. With him controlling the lane as a center of gravity, the Lakers should get more consistent protection for Nash, Steve Blake, Bryant, Ron Artest and the newly acquired Jodie Meeks as Howard does bring the effort more constantly than Bynum – part of what was so frustrating about him.
So by acquiring Nash and hiring Eddie Jordan as an assistant to insert some Princeton offense sets that fit the personnel better, the Lakers should fix the attack, while by acquiring Howard, they should fix the defense. Through these very high profile moves, Los Angeles has reinserted itself as a legit championship contender. In fact, it’s hard not to state that they are the overwhelming favorites, if not to win the championship, definitely to represent the western conference in the championship series.
There are some weaknesses left on this team, though. They are very few but they are there. Not just in the second-round of the postseason series against the Thunder but pretty much all of last season the Lakers struggled against athleticism, whether it was because Bryant is in the part of his career in which he saves his legs on defense or because Artest was out of shape. Los Angeles was especially bad keeping their opponent from scoring in transition. According to Team Rankings, the Lakers turned the ball over at the 10th highest rate per possession and allowed the third highest shooting on fast-breaks. According to Synergy Sports, they were dead last in scoring per possession allowed in transition. Nash, for all of his proficiency, should add to the problem bringing in his career 19.5% turnover-rate, per basketball-reference.
It’s also questionable this squad will be able to defend well against smaller lineups. Brown refused to play with a single big at any meaningful stretch last season. When Gasol or Bynum had to sit, Troy Murphy, Josh McRoberts and Jordan Hill were always subbed in. Artest’s presence does give him that flexibility within the lineup but even in Cleveland, Brown didn’t go small much as LeBron James played power forward just 9% of his minutes in 2009-2010, according to 82games.com. Gasol is not suited for guarding true wingmen in the perimeter. Hill is more athletic but against the Thunder, for example, the Lakers allowed 105.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, in comparison to 97.5 with him on the bench, according to NBA.com, a difference between the fourth-ranked Heat and the 26th-ranked Cavaliers in defensive efficiency. Antwan Jamison, a really poor defender at this point of his career, shouldn’t be an option either.
One other issue that may emerge is if the Lakers will be capable of providing Howard the proper perimeter support so he isn’t in foul trouble as much. Howard has mastered the art of defending without fouling, averaging fewer than 3.5 personals in all but one of the seasons in his career. Proper perimeter support in order not to overexpose him is needed, though, and it is questionable the Lakers will be able to provide him the necessary amount of it. Howard is there in order to erase the mistakes but if he is challenged on each and every trip down the floor, it will get to a point where he will face foul trouble repeatedly. Hope is they will get out of Artest earlier what they did late last season and Bryant won’t take possessions off on defense now that he doesn’t have to be as concerned with the offense thanks to Nash’s presence. There are no certainties, however.
The Lakers are once again legit contenders for the championship, if not the favorite after the trades for Nash and Howard. That does not mean we should see them as flawless or expect them to cruise through their way to a championship series berth. There are still weaknesses in this team that can be exploited by among others, the reigning conference champions of Oklahoma City.
Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘The Basketball Post’ and a Correspondent and Scout for NetScouts Basketball. More of his work can be found here and he can be followed on twitter @rafael_uehara.