Anyone familiar with most of my sports predictions knows that, ultimately, I wind up eating my fair share of crow. So, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I predicted the Los Angeles Lakers to represent the Western Conference in this June’s NBA Finals. Sure, it’s only January, and this could still happen, but who am I kidding? Stick a fork in it — the dream’s over, and the Lakers should cut their losses and prematurely end the Dwight Howard experiment.
The Lakers, 17-25 going into Friday’s action, are, to put it nicely, a mess. Barring a miraculous turn, this Lakers’ season, if they miss the playoffs, will go down as one of the biggest failures in professional sports. It would undoubtedly taint the legacy of five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant, in his glory years trying to reach Michael Jordan status. A starting five on paper — Kobe, Dwight, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol (when he’s starting, of course) and Metta World Peace — unmatched by any in recent memory. But this year, it doesn’t matter how many of these guys will finish their careers as statues in Springfield — this year, they’ve all failed.
What to do in the face of failure? Well, there’s nothing one can do except recognize defeat, cut his losses and live to fight another day. With the NBA trade deadline approaching on Feb. 21, that’s what the Lakers need to do with Dwight Howard.
L.A. acquired Howard in early August in a four-team deal that, in addition to Orlando, brought in Denver and Philadelphia to make the finances work. The Lakers sent Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia, who’s yet to take an official dribble in a Sixers’ uniform and, like Howard, is a free agent set to make a lot of coin this summer, and Josh McRoberts and Christian Eyenga, less-than-noteworthy losses, to Orlando. The Lakers also received Chris Duhon, yet to make an impact, and Earl Clark, their starting PF. The Lakers also set a conditional second-round pick in 2015 and conditional first-round pick in 2017 to the Magic.
The Lakers, then and even now, stole Howard from Orlando, who had a better trade package on the table from Brooklyn, but were hesitant to appease their star’s demands and trade him within the Eastern Conference. But, even if they didn’t plan on re-signing him this offseason, the Lakers also lost a substantial trade chip in Andrew Bynum, who could’ve, at the very least, commanded two first-round picks and some serious cap relief in return.
With Howard and the signing of future Hall of Fame PG Steve Nash, coupled with a healthy Gasol and Bryant, who would have thought the Lakers would have 17 wins through 42 games? The Lakers are in the lottery hunt — too bad if they miss the playoffs, their pick goes to Phoenix, and if they make the playoffs, it goes to Cleveland, via Miami, through a swap with Phoenix. Back to the point: the Lakers are only 4 games out of the No. 8 seed in the West, but only 3 games ahead of New Orleans, whose 14-28 mark is dead last in the conference. For a team with more than $100 million, an NBA high, on the books this season, including 3 players making at least $19 million: yikes!
Let’s shift to Howard, who’s been a shed of his Orlando self all year. Could it be his back is still bothering him and hampering his lateral movements? That’s probably true — his pick-and-rolls with Nash are too slow, as are his defensive rotations that used to define his standing as the best defensive big of the 21st century. And it’s also worth noting that Howard’s best years in Orlando, such as 2008-09 when his Magic lost to the Lakers in the Finals, he’s been surrounded by sharpshooters across the perimeter, something that L.A. lacks.
Howard’s still putting up All Star numbers — and the fans voted him in as a Western Conference starter — with 16.7 points per game, 1.6 points behind his career average, and 12 rebounds, 0.9 below his career mark. But he’s shooting a miserable 50% from the foul line, and teams have employed the “Hack-A-Howard” strategy with success this season, especially early on. So Mike D’Antoni’s been forced to pull Howard from tight games late, all but rendering his $19.26-million center useless.
Dwight’s contract comes off the books at the end of the year, but the Lakers still have close to $78.2 million already on the books for next year, assuming World Peace picks up his $7.7 million player option (he’d be crazy not to), as Kobe Bryant will become the second player in NBA history, after MJ, to make $30 million in a single season. And why would the Lakers’ brass want to offer Dwight a max deal, thereby bringing their payroll well over $100 million after they fill out their roster, for a fringe playoff return, if they’re lucky?
The Lakers could shop Gasol, but his trade value has been tarnished this year, as D’Antoni stubbornly continues to start Earl Clark (I mean, Earl Clark) over him, much to Kobe’s chagrin. Dwight, on the other hand, could bring in a borderline star, some draft picks and/or a host of expiring contracts, depending on the Lakers’ preference. Unfortunately with the year Brook Lopez is having, it looks like the Nets’ offer will be off the table.
There are still a few teams out there — Atlanta and Dallas come to mind — that are likely to make plays for Howard this upcoming offseason, and would love to get a head start on luring his long-term services. He is, after all, the most dominant player the NBA has seen since Shaquille O’Neal, if healthy.
L.A., it was a great idea to bring Howard in, but it hasn’t worked. Time to cut your losses and move on.
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