The Lakers have become synonymous with defensive breakdowns over the past few seasons, mostly because of their guards' inability to stay in front of their man. Whether it was Chris Paul, Ty Lawson,. Russell Westbrook or even Aaron Brooks, Los Angeles has been constantly out of place defensively anytime an opposing point guard thought of dribble penetration, which subsequently caused mass chaos with the Lakers rotations. Often times, one wing player, usually Matt Barnes or Kobe, would drop down off their man to corral the drive lane only to have nobody else rotate out to their man, leading to wide open three for the opposition. Other times, LA's wings wouldn't bother to drop down, leaving Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol, neither of whom is a natural shotblocker, to fend off the rim by themselves.
Even though Bynum tied an NBA record for blocks in a post-season game against the Nuggets, he's not a great rim protector. He's a slowfooted big man that has to completely leave his man to challenge shots, something that bit the Lakers in the backside once JaVale McGee started asserting himself in the latter part of that series (both on lobs and the offensive boards). Additionally, his lack of lateral quickness prevents from getting in position to defend the basket, although that's generally not something you'll notice offhand.
A lot of what makes a defense successful at the NBA level occurs subconsciously. The majority of NBA fans aren't trained to watch things like defensive rotations, post denials or pick-and-roll coverage. It's only once the ball arrives or something goes wrong (blown assignment, bad mismatch, etc.) until everyone is keyed in on what's actually happening on a given defensive possession.
The same can be said for the way NBA offenses operate. Most observers tend to watch the ball even though the bread is buttered by what the other four players on the floor do to set the stage for a successful possession. Last season it wasn't very hard to analyze the Lakers' offense because they had as much movement as a World of Warcraft addict during the weekend. Because of that we saw a ton of hero ball from Kobe Bryant when the Lakers "offense" would cede nothing over a 20 second period (Kobe took a league leading 266 shots with a short shot clock).
While relying on Bryant to bail out the team netted a negative result more often than not (this shouldn't happen that often with Steve Nash aboard), having a player capable of acting as a defensive safety valve can have an extremely positive effect.
Enter Dwight Howard.
Swapping Bynum for Howard is a huge upgrade for the Lakers because Howard covers the paint from side to side better than anyone the league has seen in over a decade. While Bynum's physique is that of a traditional center - naturally big with slow feet - Howard is a prototype big man that transformed his natural skinny frame into a chiseled and muscular masterpiece (a self proclaimed personification of a statue of Apollo) while maintaining uncanny quickness and transcendent hops. Howard is a freaky combination of Oklahoma City's two posts, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, and Kevin Garnett, possessing Perkins' ability to shut down his positional foes one-on-one, Ibaka's ability to block any kind of shot at the rim and Garnett's ability to blow up pick-and-rolls.
Now when the Lakers' guards get blown by - something that will happen frequently this season - their defense will not immediately be compromised, Howard essentially being LA's defensive safety valve. And while Kobe's role as the offensive safety net is obvious, Howard's defensive brilliance can largely go unnoticed. Wing players will have to dig down on drivers much less because they know that Howard is more than capable of protecting the rim by his lonesome. Having Howard in the paint is reassuring for everyone else on the floor and the Laker coaching staff. When a guard knows they're covered on the backend they're able to play smarter and more aggressive defense and when a coaching staff has a dominant defender like Howard they're able to be more intuitive with their schemes.
Concerns about the rest of the Lakers defensive personnel putting too much responsibilities on Howard's inexplicably broad shoulders are well founded, but it's mostly a non-issue. In 2010-11 the Magic had the third best defensive efficiency in basketball even though Howard was surrounded by guys like Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson. The Magic did drop a bit last season but that's understandable given Howard's health problems and all of the distractions the team faced throughout the year. It's not much better, but a Nash, Kobe, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol quartet around Howard shouldn't prevent Superman from shifting the Lakers into a defensive power.
The term linebacker has been thrown around to describe the way that LeBron James controls a game defensively. So if James is Ray Lewis then Howard is Ed Reed. Howard plays a bit deeper than LeBron, protecting the rim being his primary responsibility, but he also has the versatility of a guy like Reed. In addition to keeping the opposition from getting the endzone, Howard can also effectively leave his comfort zone and stunt the opponent's running game, or the pick-and-roll attack in basketball terms. What makes the situation more interesting is that Mike Brown, who relied less on LeBron as a lockdown defender and more as prowling lion that fed on passing lanes in Cleveland, could use Howard in a similar role, allowing him to, in effect, zone off the paint by himself.
Schematically there are several ways that Brown and his staff can choose to go with this upcoming season but the constant will always be the same: Whether it's shutting down LaMarcus Aldridge or Marc Gasol one-on-one, swatting Russell Westbrook on a drive or Blake Griffin on a lob, or hedging all Chris Paul pick-and-rolls and being able to recover before DeAndre Jordan has thrown the ball through the net (finally!), Howard will get the job done on the defensive end of the floor.
Combine Howard's picture perfect defensive fit with how well he figures to fit in with a point guard like Nash and suddenly the Lakers have superpower potential. The pieces still need to be placed together, but it appears as if the Lakers will clearly be one of the three prohibitive favorites to win the 2012-13 NBA Title (along with Miami and Oklahoma City). And that's due in large part to the impending transformation Dwight Howard will perform on the Lakers' defense.