So once again the Lakers land a dominant center. There was Mikan in Minneapolis and then Wilt in LA. Kareem came in a trade, Shaq signed as a free agent. Benoit Benjamin wandered in during an open house, probably while wearing two right shoes.
Now Dwight Howard, whose trade-me, trade-me-not odyssey the past year turned countless fans and NBA people against him, although it must not have hurt his feelings too much, since all indications point to Howard becoming a free agent after his season in purple and gold. Give him credit for apparently being immune to public opinion. Imagine LeBron going through with The Decision two straight summers.
As a Lakers fan I was actually more excited over the acquisition of Steve Nash, although that really has nothing to do with each player’s respective impact or potential. At best the Lakers are getting two good seasons out of Nash. As point guard he’ll be what he’s always been — a brilliant creator, deadly shooter, great leader and defensive liability. Howard? Howard could patrol Staples Center for the next decade, if he signs again. Even after Nash shuffles off to kick his soccer ball with a group of hippies in the park and Kobe retires to a dark room to watch film of his 81-point game, Howard would make the Lakers contenders. With Howard you win 50 games. Put some decent players around him and you can go to the NBA Finals. Howard alters the balance of power, giving the Lakers the most dominant rebounder and defensive player in the league, in addition to the 287 dunks he’ll provide this season. His skills should complement Kobe’s and Gasol’s and Nash’s perfectly.
Yet still it was Nash’s signing that had me rushing home to check the news when I first heard about it. The Howard news felt more like the announcement of a peace treaty after a 16-month war.
I’m excited for Nash because he gives the Lakers something they haven’t had since Magic was running up and down the floor at The Forum, a passing genius who can control the game even when he’s scoring only eight points. He’s a showman, but an efficient one. He has a flair for the dramatics, and the fundamentals. Haven’t seen that at point in LA in more than 20 years.
We’ve seen Howard, or at least versions of him. We saw a bigger, stronger, superior offensive version of him in Shaquille O’Neal. And to get Howard they traded the second-best center in the league in Andrew Bynum, who’s bigger, more refined on offense but not as dominant, or, it often seems, as engaged or motivated. Yes, we’ve seen Dwight Howard before in a Lakers uniform, even down to the spotty free throw shooting.
And to many fans of other franchises, that’s the problem. They’ve seen this story before. The actors have changed, but the script remains the same. In the ’60s the Lakers landed the most dominant offensive player in NBA history, pairing him with the best shooting guard of the era. In the mid-70s, they landed the sky-hooking force of that generation, the greatest scorer in league history, and even though they never reached the Finals in the early years after that acquisition, the titles rolled in once they paired him with the greatest point guard in league history. In the ’90s, after two years of Sedale Threatt ball following Magic’s retirement and two years of decent ball followed by inevitable postseason exits, the Lakers signed Shaq and paired him up that same year with the second best-shooting guard in league history, although in 1996 he was still only a skinny kid from Philly a year removed from high school.
Now that kid is one of the old men of the league, but in his twilight the Lakers will pair him with the dominant center of this generation, in addition to the power forward from Spain they lawfully — or not — acquired four years ago. For fans of other teams who have ruled the league — whether it’s traditional powers like the Celtics and Spurs or new ones like the Heat and Thunder — feelings of exasperation, frustration or disgust reign. Just when it seemed like the Lakers teetered on the brink of irrelevancy — and that’s what two straight ugly second-round exits mean for a franchise like the Lakers — and that LA would ride out the string with an aging Kobe Bryant and a damaged Pau Gasol, they grab Howard. Now the Heat, Thunder and Spurs are threatened, as are the aging but still proud and potent Celtics.
For fans of up-and-coming teams, franchises in smaller markets, it’s simply another sign of a rigged game. Teams like the Timberwolves and Grizzlies and Nuggets can battle and make small trades and get lucky in the draft but in the end they still have to face a team with seemingly unlimited resources, even in an era of supposedly limited funds.
Fair? No. But that’s the NBA, and that’s the way it’s been since Red Auerbach was violating fire codes up and down the Eastern Seaboard. This isn’t football where you need a couple dozen good players to contend and can only hope enough stay healthy to make it to the playoffs. This isn’t baseball where you need five or six or seven good hitters and just as many good pitchers to contend. One guy can change everything in the NBA and that one guy can play for 15 years. Find one of them and you’re set. Play without one and you’ll miss the playoffs or entertain fans while leaving each season in the second round. Find an all-timer and you win multiple titles.
Russell’s Celtics did it and after a bit of parity in the ’70s, the 1980s belonged to the Celtics and Lakers, before those teams gave way to the Bulls — and for two years the Rockets — in the 1990s. This past decade? Spurs and Lakers, with occasional appearances from the Celtics and Pistons. The league manages to survive, and often thrive, despite dominance by a half-dozen franchises. Could any other league get away with that? Probably not, but it’s the nature of the game and the league.
The Lakers own distinct advantages. Location, history, finances, plus above-average ownership. They do possess resources that the Portlands of the world can’t compete against. But is the Lakers’ way somehow worse than the ways of other powerhouses? The Thunder and Spurs are rightfully touted for their great front-offices, but all the little moves those teams have done over the years would mean nothing if both teams hadn’t lucked their way into franchise players. It’s not like winning the lottery the year the best power forward in league history enters the draft is morally superior to signing free agents, nor is lucking into the No. 2 spot in a draft where Greg Oden is going No. 1. And that too has always been the way the NBA operates, going back to the Celtics getting lucky in landing Russell to the Bucks getting the first pick when Lew Alcindor was leaving college. Dynasties turn on coin flips, tank jobs and incompetent general managers.
Of course a Western Conference title is hardly guaranteed for the Lakers, much less an NBA one. The Lakers made a similar splash in the 2004 offseason, adding Gary Payton and Karl Malone, moves that likely would have resulted in a title except for Malone’s knee injury — the first major one of his career — and Kobe’s legal troubles off the court and his shooting woes on it, when he continued to launch shot after shot against the Pistons in the Finals, long after everyone knew he was off his game. A similar result in 2013 is hardly unfathomable.
Couldn’t you see the Thunder again rolling past the Lakers in a clinching game in a crazed Oklahoma City, as Kobe shoots 8-23 while Howard and Nash share space on the sidelines, each laid out on his stomach to protect bad backs? Even if the Lakers stay healthy anything can happen.
Just look at the Olympics. Chemistry still matters, a team isn’t just about a collection of All-Stars. Spain had a chance against the U.S. A team like the Spurs still has that type of collection and cohesiveness, even as they put younger players around the fossilizing Tim Duncan. If the Lakers do face the Thunder, they still don’t have anyone to match up against Durant or Westbrook, while Kendrick Perkins has always proven a capable defender against Howard. Laker haters or those who simply bemoan someone buying a title might still enjoy a happy season.
And what happens after this season? If Howard leaves what does that make the Lakers, aside from the overwhelming favorites in the LA County over-35 league. And if he stays, will they be able to afford to put anyone decent around him or will a series of high salaries handicap the franchise?
The Lakers did take a risk in acquiring Howard, even if it seems like a no-brainer. Still, history says it will work out. That’s the Lakers’ history and the history of dominant players in the NBA. Then again, not every great NBA center who makes his way to the Lakers wins a title.