The Dwight Howard deal had such massive league-wide implications that it requires a follow-up to last Friday’s analysis. Some lingering questions:
• Do the Lakers start next season as title favorites?
On paper, the foursome of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Howard alone would seem to make a Lakers-Heat Finals inevitable. The first three with Andrew Bynum looked pretty damn good, and in swapping Bynum for Howard, the Lakers have added a more natural pick-and-roll partner for Nash and the league’s best defender — a major detail for an aging team whose defense failed it down the stretch of last season. Heck, even Metta World Peace, the fifth wheel, has settled in as a league-average three-point shooter, and if he can provide only that single offensive skill along with above-average defense, he’ll fit well in this new context. The big-man bench of Antawn Jamison, Jordan Hill and Earl Clark should be an upgrade over last season’s trio of Hill, Troy Murphy and Josh McRoberts, especially on defense via the Hill/Clark pairing.
Wing depth stands as the potentially fatal issue against Oklahoma City and Miami, the returning Finals teams that thrive playing small-ball. But the Lakers’ “normal” lineup is now considerably faster than it was last season, when Denver nearly ran the plodding Lake Show out of the playoffs, and that means coach Mike Brown’s team might be better able to impose its own identity on the Thunder and/or Heat. And even with reserve point guard Eric Maynor back healthy next season, the Thunder’s best small-ball lineups might still play too small (with Maynor, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant) or be more guardable (with Thabo Sefolosha replacing Maynor). The Thunder still haven’t found a bigger wing (other than Durant) who plays both ends credibly, and Durant, for all his greatness, isn’t on James’ level yet as a defender. I’m not convinced that the Thunder are ready to have Durant guard Gasol for entire quarters or halves, even if they have tried it in stretches. Rookie Perry Jones might change this equation, but it’s too early to say.
No matter, the Lakers will need something more than expected from the Jodie Meeks/Matt Barnes/Devin Ebanks group (assuming Barnes comes back) in order to be as well-equipped as possible to deal with all kinds of opposing lineups.
And there will, of course, be health and chemistry issues to sort out, with assistant coach Eddie Jordan presumably bringing the Princeton offense to Los Angeles. We’ve gone over those a ton already: Kobe’s taking the rights kinds of shots; getting the proper balance between Bryant and Nash as ball-handlers/holders; and finding the appropriate spacing and alignments for the Gasol/Howard pairing.
These are difficult questions. Reasonable people thought the Heat would win 70 games and a title in their first year together, but it took them two seasons of turmoil and an injury to Chris Bosh to discover their best identity. Then again, that flawed 2010-11 Heat team came within a James meltdown of winning the title.
Given the heights Miami and Oklahoma City have already reached, we have to be cautious installing the Lakers as favorites — especially with questions of age and health (Howard’s back) looming. But if both rosters are 100 percent healthy, I’m taking the Lakers’ roster — on paper — over Oklahoma City’s by a tiny margin in an agonizing choice. Miami has the world’s best player, by a considerable margin, plus two other stars roughly on the Bryant/Gasol level, newfound depth and a powerful understanding of itself. I’m not ready to put the on-paper Lakers over a team with all that going for it.
• What was Houston’s offer for Howard, and why didn’t Orlando take it?
Sussing out exactly what the Rockets could have offered, and when, is enormously complicated. This team still has 20 players under contract, including several under nonguaranteed or partially guaranteed deals that may also carry unknown bonuses and other details. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Magic themselves had trouble calculating Houston’s cap room to the dollar. And that calculation is important, because any Houston deal consummated now (or in the next couple of weeks) would have involved the use of around $10 million of the Rockets’ cap space — a number the team could get to only by waiving and/or buying out a half-dozen players after Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin came aboard via offer sheets as restricted free agents.
But even with just $9 million or so in cap space, the Rockets still could have offered a package built around that space; shooting guard Kevin Martin’s $12.4 million expiring deal; about $5 million or $6 million worth of young players from the last three drafts; and a few future draft picks, including the virtually certain lottery pick that they acquired from Toronto for point guard Kyle Lowry. That combination would have allowed the Rockets to take on the same Howard/Jason Richardson/Chris Duhon package the Magic sent out (along with Clark) in last Friday’s deal.
The math there is tight, and I just don’t see a way that, under current conditions, Houston could have substituted Hedo Turkoglu’s larger deal for Richardson’s or added Glen Davis to this package. That’s where winning both the Lin and Asik bidding wars hurt. Things might have changed later, had the Rockets eventually used up their cap room, allowing them to use more liberal trade rules for teams over the cap but under the tax. Those rules allow for such teams to take in 150 percent of the money they send out in trades.
That Houston package would have carried no guaranteed money (outside of rookie deals) beyond next season. In the actual trade, the Magic took on at least $31 million post-2013 salary linked to Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington — a number that would jump to about $38 million if the Magic keep Harrington for the full guaranteed amount of his deal, which would seem unlikely. The Afflalo/Harrington money is probably enough to take Orlando out of next summer’s free-agent market entirely, or at least limit its ability to pursue any max-level player who might become available. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because no max-level player would have joined this roster. And even if the Magic had accepted this precise Houston package, they wouldn’t have had meaningful cap space to use during the season as a trade facilitator — a way general manager Rob Hennigan’s mentors in Oklahoma City acquired an extra asset here or there over the years.
(Side note: That wouldn’t have been the case had Orlando passed on signing point guard Jameer Nelson to a three-year, $25 million deal, a move that looks strange now. The team needs a point guard, of course, but it didn’t have to be the 30-year-old Nelson at that price — especially in what has now become a major rebuild.)
Still, the money due Harrington and Afflalo may have been enough to possibly tip the balance between two offers that weren’t so different otherwise. Remember: Houston wasn’t offering any guaranteed top-10 picks here, either in terms of drafted players or future picks; the Raptors pick may well end up in the lower part of the top 10, and the Rockets have a pick from Dallas that could end up unprotected way out in 2018, but neither of those scenarios is anything close to guaranteed. The cap savings would have been guaranteed, though.
Given all that, one of the following almost certainly has to be true:
• Orlando loves Afflalo, who is about to turn 27 and has never put up a league-average Player Efficiency Rating. But he came close to that mark last season, and he’s clearly trying to find the right balance in his game between scoring, defense, passing and off-the-dribble creativity. When Afflalo finds that balance, is he going to be an All-Star? That seems unlikely, though the shooting guard crop is famously weak. At the very least, he’s a suitable replacement for J.J. Redick, who will be a free agent after next season. And Scott Perry, the Magic’s new assistant GM, is familiar with Afflalo from his days in a similar position with the Pistons, Afflalo’s first NBA team.
• Orlando loves Moe Harkless, the 15th pick in the June draft, and/or Nikola Vucevic, the 16th pick in 2011.
• Orlando at least loved the fact that Harkless, by virtue of his earlier signing date, became trade-eligible late last week. Houston’s draft picks signed later and won’t be trade-eligible for another few weeks, and the Magic may have decided it was time to cut bait with Howard and move on.
Absent one or more of those conditions, Houston’s would-be offer strikes me as a hair better. Ditto for any three- or four-way Brooklyn-centric deal in which the Magic would have received Brook Lopez, MarShon Brooks and picks without also taking on Kris Humphries — a deal type that may have been dead by the time Lopez signed his max contract. It was popular to mock the idea of Orlando’s taking on Lopez at $14 million or so per season, but that’s precisely what Harrington and Afflalo make combined. And this doesn’t even take into account that Bynum, still just 24, won’t make all that much more per year on his next contract. Dealing for Bynum would have brought the risk of his bolting after one season and the Magic’s being “too good” to hit high in the lottery, but it also would have brought a potential franchise centerpiece and the ability to get abjectly awful a year later if he didn’t re-sign. It wouldn’t have come with the same bounty of picks, but the picks Orlando got will all fall outside the lottery — a place in which the average return, on the high end, is a career in line with Corliss Williamson or Kelvin Cato.
• Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner: You ready for this?
Only five teams took fewer threes than Philadelphia last season, and we’ve thankfully gotten to the point where most smart NBA people realize that is a bad thing. The Sixers’ top three in long-distance attempts — Meeks, Lou Williams and Andre Iguodala — are all gone, so it’s nice that they have added Dorell Wright, Nick Young and Jason Richardson.
Only Richardson is signed beyond next season, and none of those three are reliable off-the-dribble creators at this point. Philadelphia is going to need to create offense, and being able to dump the ball into a polished low-post beast like Bynum must feel like such a relief to a team that had to work endless cuts and dribble hand-offs just to generate a semi-clean mid-range jumper last season. Bynum has to improve his passing out of double teams, especially passing to the other side of the floor and to cutters, and that will come.
But the Sixers will also have to develop a pick-and-roll attack, and that will test both Bynum and the holdover ball-handlers — Turner and Holiday. Turner has rarely been used as a primary creator, and Holiday’s tendency to pull up for jumpers, go against picks and dribble aimlessly on the perimeter during pick-and-rolls has irritated some in the organization at times. The Sixers have been a middling pick-and-roll team, at best; Holiday had one of the lowest assist rates in the league among starting point guards, and he has only shown flashes as a decisive penetrator capable of carving out space and dishing tricky interior passes.
But Holiday shared ball-handling duties with both Iguodala and Williams, and the Sixers didn’t have a single big man whose bread-and-butter included rolling regularly below the foul line. Thaddeus Young has that kind of explosiveness, and it will be interesting to see if he earns the starting power forward spot over the glut of centers now on the roster — Spencer Hawes (the presumptive starter alongside Bynum), Lavoy Allen and Kwame Brown.
Is Bynum the answer? That’s unclear, and the lack of clarity is part of the fun here. He took only 35 shots all last season out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports, a shockingly low number that brings the same context-versus-player questions as Holiday’s assist numbers: Did Bynum avoid the pick-and-roll because he’s not good at it, or because the Lakers’ Kobe- and post-up-centric system mitigated against it?
We’ll see. Bynum was never super-comfortable setting high screens at or above the three-point arc — the kind point guards love, because they allow for great vision, floor spacing and a head start. Bynum was mostly an elbows-area screener on the wings, and his best pick-and-roll partner was probably Gasol. The two thrived on plays in which the Lakers would clear one side of the floor for the Bynum/Gasol pick-and-roll while using some misdirection to distract defenders on the other side. The Lakers, in other words, would create space for Bynum on the pick-and-roll; the best pick-and-roll big men create space for others by rolling hard down the middle and sucking in the defense.
Bynum mostly dunked lobs out of this wing action, and even on the rare high pick-and-rolls he did run, the Lakers would swing the ball first to Gasol on the wing and have Gasol lob it to Bynum for a dunk. Bynum has the footwork and coordination to do more. But how much more?
Regardless, the Sixers aren’t a serious challenger to Miami, and they know that. The idea was to obtain a long-term centerpiece and see what exactly they have in Holiday and Turner before their rookie deals expire; Holiday’s ends after next season, and his cap hold would prevent Philadelphia from having any cap flexibility until the summer of 2014.
• Denver Nuggets: How good are they? And does it matter?
There isn’t much left to say about these guys that we didn’t say on Friday or in this in-depth look at the Nuggets’ style of team-building:
• We know Iguodala has to play shooting guard, and that he’s fully capable. He brings more handling and passing skills than Afflalo, and he can defend either wing position at an elite level.
• We know this team can’t help but be better than 19th in points allowed per possession (i.e., team defense) with Iguodala around and another year of experience for the Kenneth Faried/JaVale McGee frontcourt.
• We know coach George Karl will have to work hard to find the right three-man combinations among Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Corey Brewer — the best point guard/wing groupings for spacing and defense. Gallinari and Chandler will likely see some time as floor-spacing power forwards in smaller lineups, a role Harrington played very well last season before a meniscus injury began to affect his play. Twitter pundits reduced Harrington to a trade throw-in punch line on Friday — “Orlando got Al Harrington for Dwight Howard!??” — but Harrington produced the best defensive rebounding rate of his career last season, worked hard on both ends and mostly limited his offense to three-point shots and rim attacks. The balance wasn’t always perfect, but Harrington was a very useful player.
Faried will do just fine as the team’s starting power forward, but with Harrington gone, the Nuggets’ small lineups might play a little smaller on defense and on the glass. That’s weird to say, given that Gallinari is actually an inch taller than Harrington and has a much more proficient dribble-drive game that draws heaps of free throws. (The world is still waiting, by the way, for Gallinari to combine above-average three-point shooting and foul-drawing in the same season.)
Bottom line: The Nuggets still project as a playoff team, but placing them in any loftier discussion is premature. They need to answer some of these questions, and McGee needs to prove his playoff performance wasn’t a fluke — and that Denver won’t collapse on the glass when he’s in the game, as both the Wizards and Nuggets did last season and (in Washington’s case) in every previous season of his four-year career. And if McGee fails, is Timofey Mozgov ready to step into a larger role? Even with tehse questions, it’s important to remember that flawed, starless and allegedly limited Denver teams in 2010-11 and last season proved they could push some of the Western Conference’s heavyweights hard with their fast pace and unconventional style.
This will be a dangerous team with a high ceiling, a good team with a history of annoying the Lakers and Thunder. And if the Nuggets appear to be falling short of that ceiling, the front office has shown a willingness to tweak in ways that surprise the rest of the league.