So the Lakers finally got their big man in Dwight Howard after all. A starting lineup of Kobe, Nash, Gasol, Howard and Metta World Peace should make for an exciting year at Staples Center. The next question, after the initial excitement wears off, is are they now capable of beating Oklahoma City, or looking further ahead the Heat?
A lot depends on Kobe’s ability to do a personal skill level reality check. Will he be comfortable scoring fewer points per game? Will he feel comfortable with the ball in Steve Nash’s hands as the Lakers begin a climactic offense set down one with 15 seconds left? As we all know he wasn’t able to do that in his younger days, playing his part in the breakup of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. But I think he’s getting a pretty in-your-face look at the truth as a member of Team USA. When he’s on the court with LeBron, Westbrook, Durant and company, even the most stubborn player has to see that there are faster, stronger, better players in the league now. Those guys are in their prime. Kobe isn’t anymore. There’s no shame in that. And I think he’s coming to grips with it. I think he will be able to sit on the wing and watch as Nash delivers it to Gasol and Howard throughout the game, knowing his times to contribute will come naturally and don’t need to be forced anymore.
That last-possession issue will be interesting. What will the Lakers do when they really, really need a basket. Nash has earned the trust to have the ball and do what’s right, but at his age is he capable of making those plays as often as will be necessary to be an elite team.
The addition of Howard obviously helps defensively. How often did Westbrook, Harden and Durant slash to the basket for easy hoops in last year’s near sweep of the Lakers. Oh yeah, the Heat kind of enjoy the whole take-it-to-the-hoop thing, too.
If the big four can stay healthy all year (because the rest of the roster is rough), the Lakers should be able to compete for an NBA title, but that’s a pretty big if for a center with a back problem, a skinny seven footer and a pair of high 30-something guards. Plus, they have to dodge all the friendly fire elbows from World Peace during practices.
Right now, even after the trade, I’d still put the Thunder and Heat ahead of the Lakers, but I didn’t consider the Lakers close to those teams at all before the trade. Now, I think they’re in the discussion. The Nash addition actually excites me more for the Lakers than the Howard addition. I don’t think there’s much difference between Howard and Bynum. Howard’s better on defense, Bynum’s better on offense. But Nash will be smart enough to keep everybody happy while still doing the right thing at crunch times of games. The days of the double-covered 20-foot fadeaway game-winning attempt from Kobe are over.
The defense of everyone else on the court besides Howard, and the nothing-to-be-excited-about bench are what holds me back from declaring the Lakers on the same plane with the Thunder. General toughness and the whole not-having-LeBron thing are what holds me back from declaring the Lakers on the same plane with the Heat.
Whatever happens to this Lakers team, it will be fun to watch, and changes certainly had to be made. Mitch Kupchack is an underrated GM and he had a great summer.
Your thoughts? Are the Lakers the favorite now?