The Los Angeles Lakers have a long and storied history of success in the NBA, more so than any other franchise. They have achieved this success due to a number of factors: An often-times brilliant front office which uses all of the numerous tools at its disposal to make sure the roster is stocked with talent, a willingness to pull the trigger on risky moves that always seem to pan out better than expected, inherent fiscal and locational advantages that give the Lakers a leg up on the competition, and of course, luck. But no factor is more important than this one; the Lakers have a clear vision of how to build a team. That vision has remained constant through different eras, different coaches, different owners, even different home cities.
That vision is the foundation upon which the Lakers have achieved so much success, which is ironic, because the vision is to build the team around the best foundation available. The Lakers have always, always, built their rosters around a dominant center. From Mikan to Chamberlain to Jabaar to Shaq, the Lakers have drilled this lesson into the heads of every other team in the league, unless they were having the lesson drilled into theirs (see Russel, Bill). Even when they seemingly eschewed this philosophy to ship out a still valuable Shaq and build around Kobe Bryant, their idea of building around Kobe was to start searching for the next great center. Even as Kobe became frustrated with what he perceived as a lack of urgency on the part of the team, the Lakers used their only lottery pick of the decade on a 17-year-old project of a center named Andrew Bynum. It was considered a stretch at the time, a gamble. Last year, after years of showing signs, that gamble finally paid off to the tune of one of the league's best centers. But "one of the league's best" isn't how the Lakers like to roll at the center position, so they used Bynum as leverage to pull in the one guy who is better than he is. Now, Dwight Howard is a Laker, and the circle is complete once again.
Let's break down Dwight's game, as well the poor schmucks who will "back" him up.
Once the trade for Steve Nash was consummated, the Los Angeles Lakers were in an enviable position. Everyone knew they had eyes on Dwight Howard, but they were still able to be patient enough to get him on their terms, because the fall back was continuing to employ Andrew Bynum, who is as good a 2nd option to Howard as exists in this league. In fact, there is a conversation to be had about which player, Bynum or Howard, is the better overall player. Bynum's offensive game is more refined, and his ability to hit free throws consistently means a team does not have to fear going to him down the stretch, as has often been the case with Howard. For my money, Howard's defensive dominance and elite athleticism put him ahead of Bynum by a comfortable margin, but I can see the other side of the argument. However, the "overall player" argument is one we couldn't care less about.
The question we care about is: Which player will make the Lakers better? The answer is Howard, and it is no contest. If a computer were to analyze the relative strengths and weaknesses of all of the other players on the Lakers this season, most importantly all the other stars, and "create" a player specifically meant to enhance the strengths and diminish the weaknesses of those stars, that player would be Dwight Howard. Actually, I don't think a computer could do as good a job in fictionally creating the perfect player to compliment the likes of Kobe, Nash and Pau Gasol as Howard does, because computers operate within limits that nature does not. Dwight Howard exists in a zone of athleticism that is beyond the limits of what was previously imaginable. He is not a perfect fit for this Lakers squad. He is better than perfect.
What exactly does Howard bring to the table? Offensively, it's a bit of a mixed bag. His offensive game is not refined. For years, he really didn't have much of a post game to speak of. He would simply turn, face his opponent, and attempt to blow by him in one direction or the other, relying solely on his godlike athleticism to get the job done. In the past couple of seasons, he's gotten better in the post, with a decent hook shot to either side. He's also added a decent pull up jump shot off glass (a la Tim Duncan, though with less range) to keep defenders from sagging off of him. But none of these options is as reliant as they need to be in order to label Howard as completely unstoppable. And his complete inability to hit free throws at a consistent rate (career 59% and last year was (by far) a career low at 49%) looms over it all like the heel of some famous demigod whose name I forgot. So, what's the good news offensively? As befitting a man of his insane combination of size, strength and athleticism, Dwight Howard is an absolute beast finishing as the roll man in the pick and roll. If Howard gets the ball with anything but a perfectly positioned defender in front of him, points or free throws (or both) are a virtual guarantee. With the decline of Amar'e Stoudemire, Howard is probably the best in the NBA as the 2nd half of a pick and roll. And the Lakers just traded for the guy who got Stoudemire involved in the conversation in the first place. Besides, let's be real here. Even with all of Howard's supposed offensive weaknesses, this is a 20 points per game scorer who hits at a career 58% FG% clip. He may not have an array of elite offensive skills, but that hasn't kept him from being an elite offensive player.
Defensively, it's not so much a mixed bag as it is a bag where everything that gets pulled out is better than the last. To say that Dwight has no weaknesses on defense doesn't sufficiently qualify things. He's not just good at all aspects of defense, he's close to being the best in the league at each individual aspect. He's ranked 1st, 2nd, 1st and 1st in total rebounding the past four years. 3rd, 4th, 1st and 1st in blocks per game. There's no ranking for it, but his coverage of the court and defense of the pick and roll is second to none at his position. Kevin Love might be a better overall rebounder. Serge Ibaka might be a better weak side help defender. Tyson Chandler might be as effective in moving to cover the pick and roll. Howard is the complete package, a once in a lifetime defensive player.
And make no mistake, the Lakers need a once in a lifetime defensive player in order to be effective on that end. The Lakers are weak at point guard defensively, and while the rest of their starting lineup ranks somewhere between decent and good defensively, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol all lack a certain amount of lateral quickness at this point in their careers. They can all be effective getting in opponent's faces (or in Pau's case, holding his ground in the post), but to do so requires someone who can erase mistakes if they play too aggressively. That's exactly what Howard provides.
Offensively, the Lakers should be an extremely effective unit with our without Howard, but Howard's greatest strength (as a finisher in pick and roll situations) jives nicely with our newly acquired maestro Steve Nash. Defensively, Howard has the ability to correct for all the issues caused by the weak and/or aggressive defending that the Lakers are likely to employ on the perimeter. After the trade for Steve Nash, the Lakers had a Dwight Howard-sized hole in the middle of their roster. Andrew Bynum could have covered most of the leaks, but parts of that hole would have been uncovered, and the Lakers would have suffered for it. Howard ensures there are no gaps.
But did you know the Lakers have other centers, too?
Ben R covered Sacre pretty well in yesterday's Beast or Burden, so there's no point in re-inventing the wheel.
Sacre certainly has a number of foibles to contend with, namely his complete lack of lift around the basket and his defensive discipline, especially in straight-up post defense, but he brings a rather wide number of positives to the table one would not expect out of the last pick of the draft. Fully cognizant that he is playing with a number of other stars and one of the greatest pick-and-roll point guards ever, Sacre has been an inviting target around the rim, showing his hands, claiming post position, and displaying a soft touch around the rim with a set of hook shots. Moreover, he is willing to throw around his 7'0'', 260 pound frame on both ends, earning himself quite a few trips to the free throw line, where his accuracy is a great boon. Indeed, one wishes he would show his nice midrange jumper more often as a release valve in the offense since he invariably is going to be the option opposing teams shade away from in order to cover the Lakers' more notable players.
The truth is, Sacre is unlikely to see any sort of relevant playing time this season unless forced into action by injury, and this is probably a good thing. Sacre is a very decent offensive option, and his size makes him a decent rebounder, but he has a lack of mobility that will be problematic because of how the rest of the roster will be built (i.e. around Howard). With an effective and mobile defensive option ahead of him in Jordan Hill (who, although more of a power forward, will find the majority of his minutes at center), Sacre won't see much time outside of garbage time, but even as the fifth big man, he's a decent find with the last pick in the draft.
Hahahaha, I'm not going to spend time talking about him. He's not going to make the team. I just like typing his name. Keeps me on my toes.
The Bottom Line
Dwight Howard is beyond perfect as the defensive anchor who is important, but not the focal point, offensively. The Lakers are lucky to have him, and if the team is to be successful as a championship contender, it will be on his broad defensive shoulders. The problem therein is building the entire team to be successful around a player who cannot be duplicated. Will the team be able to survive the rare minutes when Jordan Hill or Pau Gasol spells Howard, or will the defensive scheme fall apart. For that matter, will Howard be able to jump right in as the dominant force he's been in the past, or will his injury trouble last season carry over in the form of rust or (gasp) lingering further problems? Prior to last season, Howard was a veritable iron man, missing just 7 games in his first 7 seasons, so there's plenty of reason to be optimistic about his health. But the injury he sustained last year was a back injury, and back injuries and big men are a bad, bad combination.
The Lakers will need Howard to be effective in order to be an elite team. They'll need him to be dominant to fulfill their championship aspirations. Everything, and everyone, else is irrelevant when it comes to the center position.