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.