We all know the Los Angeles Lakers had a busy offseason, so let's get right to it.
The trade to acquire Howard was obviously a slam dunk, pun intended. To me, though, there are some unanswered questions about whether the Lakers get the maximum immediate return on their investment.
The biggest one: is Howard healthy? He's currently rehabbing from back surgery that knocked him out last season, and his return date continues to be a moving target. I expect Howard to eventually make a full recovery, and I think the Lakers are doing the right thing by bringing him along slowly. At the same time, the Lakers need all the time they can get for Howard and his teammates to develop the right on-court chemistry. As great as Howard is, he changes everyone's on-court habits by necessity with his very presence. The more time everyone has practicing together, the easier the adjustment will be when the games actually begin.
And there will need to be adjustments, especially offensively. For the first time in his career, Howard will have to play with other top scorers. As much as Kobe Bryant wants to say otherwise, he will want to get his touches on the block. Steve Nash is unselfish and willing to help his team win, but he also is used to handling the ball on 90 percent of his team's possessions. Pau Gasol's game fell off last year when he was paired with another post-up big man in Andrew Bynum, so he needs to be rehabilitated in some capacity as well. With all that in mind, Howard will probably need to spend far more possessions as a decoy, screener or even just as a floor-spacer. That's going to be a tricky change for Howard, considering the Magic ran their offense entirely through him in the post.
Of course, if Howard accepts his diminished offensive role, the Lakers will do great things. In particular, there's one play that I'd like to see the Lakers adopt that the Magic used countless times to get Howard the ball with deep post position. They would have Howard set a screen for the point guard to go one way, and as Howard rolled to the basket, the point guard would immediately swing the ball to the opposite wing. The wing player would then quickly throw it inside to Howard, who would have his man pinned right underneath the hoop. That was Orlando's pet play for a while, but in recent years, they started to go away from it so Howard could run more traditional post-ups. I don't think that's going to work in Los Angeles with so many elite passers like Nash and Pau Gasol. If Howard commits himself to letting the offense work for him instead of making the offense change to work for him, he will be successful.
It's just a lot of moving parts, is all.
But in all honestly, this may be an even bigger adjustment for Nash, who will now have to get used to not having the ball in his hands for 90 percent of his team's offensive possessions. No matter what Bryant says, he is still going to take over tons of possessions isolating himself on the block or running pick and roll. The last time Nash had a fellow perimeter player that played anything like Bryant was Joe Johnson ... in 2005.
Here's a jarring stat for you: only six percent of Nash's possessions last season came from spot-up shooting, according to MySynergySports.com. There were only 49 plays in the entire Phoenix Suns' season that were classified as spot-up situations for Nash, and he played in 62 games last year. In other words, less than one play per game ended with Nash emerging from the background to try to finish a play a teammate created. By contrast, a whopping 61 percent of Nash's total plays ended were via the pick and roll. With Bryant, Gasol and Howard on the team, there is no way Nash will have the latitude to end so many plays that way.
The good news for the Lakers is that Nash has all the tools necessary to play well when working off someone else's offense. He's one of the best shooters in NBA history, and he did hit nearly 49 percent of his spot-up three-pointers last year. The Lakers' plans to run some Princeton sets may help too because it'll keep Nash moving, and Nash is far more elusive than he is explosive. The Lakers also won't have to worry about Nash "accepting" his role, because he'll do anything at this point in his career to win.
But make no mistake about it: this will be a big change for Nash. Even the best-intentioned players need some time to recondition their brains to process new habits.
- Antawn Jamison was a nice addition, and he'll fit in well now that Eddie Jordan, his former head coach with the Washington Wizards, is taking an active role with the team's offense. But he's also getting older and might be the worst defensive player in the league right now. In a limited role, he can help, but if any of the Lakers' big men goes down with an injury, the drop-off will be steep.
- Jodie Meeks is a limited player because all he can really do is shoot threes, but I could see him getting some time because he'll help space the floor for the Lakers' big guns.
- If Earl Clark is playing significant minutes, things have gone very wrong. Same for Chris Duhon.
- Keeping Jordan Hill was a must after he played decently over the final stretch of the season, but the drop-off between him and the Lakers' starting big men is very, very, very, very steep.
It couldn't be anything else, of course, but for the Lakers to come away with the NBA title, the pieces need to jell quickly. That process may be more challenging than anyone expects.