SUPERMAN comes to LA, and most peculiarly wishes to be called IRON MAN now. He goes gaga over his affinity for the much prevalent “Gangnam Style”, making ludicrous comments about how it served a role in his recovery from the back injury. He likes to do impersonations and has a thing for the artistic and dramatic side of things, not to mention his infectious energy and ability to entertain. He loves making style statements, enjoys glamor and the company of showbiz. Well, it doesn’t take much intelligence to safely assume that considering his antics, the city of Los Angeles should serve to fulfill all his fads and fantasies. The press corps are jubilant, the passionate crowd in an almost sense of unbelieving hysteria. The excitement, the expectations are at a paramount level, and the whole city is waiting for the first glimpse of D12 soaring up and flushing down the ball, avenging some long held vendetta and causing the crowd to go “OOH AND AAH”.
Well, the hype and euphoria is at its zenith now and undermines the importance and significance of the Lakers’ newest addition. With a back-court boasting of the likes of Nash and Bryant and a front court bearing the superlative talents of Gasol and the combative World-Peace, the Lakers are at the cusp of creating history. The most intriguing fact is that even though Bryant remains the Lakers franchise superstar, he is rated below Howard in the list. It is not often that somebody of the pedigree and ability of Kobe is unanimously rated as the second best to anyone in the league, let it be in his own team. A silent reminder to his early days in the league, when he played second fiddle to the original Superman “Shaquille O’Neal”. With Howard’s addition, a similar trend is widely expected to be reciprocated.
When Howard was introduced to the press as a Laker player, GM Mitch Kupchak remarked, “We’re hopeful that 10 years from now, we can add a jersey to that wall over there that says Dwight Howard.” The wall that has names like Magic, West, Elgin Baylor gracing it and shall soon see the additions of the insuperable Kobe Bryant, might have actually found another potential bearer. The time is now for Howard to embrace his role, to make the most of the glorious opportunity that he has. The pressure on Howard is immense, and with the expectations levied on him, it is a make-or-break year for him. The opportunity is there for him to achieve a pantheon similar to the other great Laker big men like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, George Mikan and Shaq himself. But, on the other darker side also ride the many players who have folded under such brobdingnagian expectations and have turned out to be massive busts. Players like Vlade Divac, Elden Campbell can bear testimony to the same.
Howard comes to the Lakers with a lot of baggage. He was revered in Orlando but the shenanigans he pulled during the past two seasons (famously known as “DWIGHTMARE”), has made it difficult for the fans to warm up to him immediately. Flattering to deceive, it may very well happen that he may relinquish the august franchise in hopes of landing a more lucrative deal and maybe a better assortment of talent, with so much as a page-long “Thank You” message in the morning newspaper. He chooses to be coy over his future, and remains non-committal to the Lakers on one hand, but on the other he can’t stop raving about the tremendous ball-club that the Lakers are, and how much he venerates the chance to play alongside the consummate superstars like Nash, Bryant, Gasol and World-Peace. It took him two years to make his mind up about leaving Orlando, and when he did so he had already had their head coach fired, had his own personal say on trade and off-season moves of the Magic, all the while complaining of their lack of ambition and failure to assort a team good enough to win a NBA Championship. His shenanigans have left the Magic in a state where trying to form a championship roster is out of the question, they would do well to even finish 8th in their conference this year.
Thankfully, the Lakers have a franchise player in Bryant who is dogged enough to rein in the biggest egos in the squad and push them to a level where they make the maximum of their potential. And Bryant’s greatest responsibility this year remains in reigning in Howard, to teach him the finer nuances of being a responsible leader and a franchise man. Hopefully, two years down the line when Kobe retires, Howard would still be there and would have matured enough to take over the reins from the black mamba. A ring or two would certainly help, but to go through a play-off series and watch the superlative competitive and fighting spirit of Bryant would teach him a thing or two about making the most of the players and talent around him; to take obstacles as challenges rather than an option of excuses.
On a purely basketball level, Howard is expected to have a massive impact. He comes out of Orlando as their franchise record holder in points scored, blocks and rebounds. Howard was crowned as the defensive player of the year for three consecutive seasons from 2008 to 2011, and has made the All NBA First team 5 consecutive times since the year 2008. He also led the league in rebounding 4 times and in blocks for 2 seasons. All in all, he is the undisputed best Center in the NBA. His energy and athleticism to go along with his herculean physical abilities more than complement his choice to be regarded as SUPERMAN. And it is this huge defensive quality that can go a long way in enabling the Lakers to earn a record 17th NBA Championship title. The Lakers had a pretty good defensive record in the last campaign and the addition of a 3-time defensive player of the year to go along with the strategic importance that coach Mike Brown provides to defensive assignments, can very easily see the Lakers establishing themselves as the best defensive unit in the league.
With Howard protecting the ring and his well-documented ability to block and alter shots, it shall solve the Lakers greatest defensive woe of preventing scoring off dribble penetration. Further on, the insurance that Howard provides can allow the other players to take more chances on the defensive end of the floor, try to play the passing lanes more and force turnovers. With Howard anchoring the paint, opposition teams would have to try to score off the perimeter and Lakers are well endowed to defend such threats with their premier defensive talents of Bryant and World-Peace. The only way to nullify the effectiveness of a shot-blocker is to involve him in high pick and roll situations, something that the Heat did very astutely against Roy Hibbert and Serge Ibaka. However, Howard maybe has the best two feet among big men in the league and is the best pick and roll defender in the league. He is more than capable to keep up with the opposition guards, and the option of switching on a pick and roll with Howard is not a bad choice at all. Furthermore, he is quick to release the ball and ever-eager to run the floor in a transition or semi-transition game. To all those who still doubt the Lakers perspicaciousness in trading Bynum for Howard, the above qualities make Howard a definite upgrade over the languid and slothful Bynum.
However, detractors of Howard have always questioned his ability as an offensive player. And even after 8 years in the league, multiple sessions with Hakeem Olajuwon and the much esteemed Brian Hill, he is nothing more than an athletic freak who is going to hound the boards tirelessly and try to win offensive rebounds, not a silky smooth telegenic orchestrating pulchritudinous post moves. His image is of a player who tries to get the throw-downs on the pick and roll or try to get a deep position in the paint and turn and dunk the ball. He doesn’t have a pretty hook shot, can’t do much with his left hand and doesn’t have anything in terms of a mid-range game. Further on, he is a pathetic free throw shooter and for someone who averages among the league leaders in terms of free throw attempts, a career free throw percentage of 58.8 is dismal to say the least.
But, one of the major reasons why Howard didn’t exactly develop as a better offensive player was due to the derisory game play strategies employed by the Magic under Stan Van Gundy. Van Gundy’s offensive strategies involved fielding multiple spot up shooters, and concentrating more on ball rotation and movement in the perimeter. Orlando shot a league high 1280 three point shots, which made up for a staggering 34.5% of their field goal attempts. With a team that had a mentality to shoot on every opportunity, Howard still managed to average 20.6 points last season. Be it the pick and roll opportunities or the deep catch and post up, Howard was never the first offensive option for the Magic, and to average 20.6 points despite that is a testament to the work-rate and offensive efficiency of Howard.
With the Lakers fielding the sorcerous orchestrator in Steve Nash and choosing to deploy the Princeton Offense, the role of the Center becomes pivotal, and Howard can expect to be at the receiving end of many offensive openings. Nash and Howard on the pick and roll will be deadly and with Gasol proving to be an adept passer, Lob City might get some serious competition and expect Howard to feature in many a highlight reel. With the Lakers offense depending on their length and depth inside, Howard is sure to get many post-up opportunities and expect him to become a much better post player. If the scouting report coming out of the Lakers training camp is to be believed, the Lakers coaching staff are spending a lot of time working on Howard’s footwork and balance on the low post and it may not be long before detractors like Shaq might have to bite their words back.
The greatest thing that Howard will benefit from is playing for a franchise with the history like the Lakers; all the big names, the legends, the statues, the banners hanging off the rafters, the celebrities on court-side, and the legends always eager to advice and pass on their experience. On court he will get to play with the irrepressible Kobe Bryant, who is going to push him to the maximum and help him realize his full potential.
However, Howard’s addition to the Lakers makes them another super-team and whenever a Superteam comes to the fore, it invites a lot of scathing criticism and unjustified cynicism and incertitude. And the Lakers would see the most of this unenviable attention. Central to this would be their Center. He would be surrounded by doubts regarding his temperament and attitude, his commitment to the purple and gold brigade and considering his reputation, the possibility of a shambling tirade. But, what Howard needs to concentrate on is the opportunity to win titles and build a legacy similar to the great Kareem Abdul Jabbar, or the indomitable Wilt Chamberlain. The future may see his jersey no. retired, a banner on the rafters, a statue outside Staples Centre, and quite possible a hall-of-fame nomination. But, until the season starts and he achieves everything that is being envisaged, it is nothing but mere speculation, and Howard is no stranger to that.
SportsKeeda NBA Top 20
20. James Harden
19. Chris Bosh
18. LaMarcus Aldridge
17. Pau Gasol
16. Dirk Nowitzki (for 20-16, read here)
15. Blake Griffin
14. Tony Parker
13. Andrew Bynum
10. Kevin Love
9. Derrick Rose
7. Dwyane Wade
6. Kobe Bryant
5. Rajon Rondo
4. Dwight Howard