It appears that the L.A. Lakers have moved into the lead in the amaranthine Dwight Howard sweepstakes, with the Orlando Magic reportedly discussing a three-way deal including the Cleveland Cavaliers as the center himself -- the key tripping point to all previous talks with L.A. -- reportedly warms to the City of Angels.
The Lakers would take in Howard, who'd sign a multi-year extension, and would send Andrew Bynum to Cleveland, where he could possibly sign an extension. (More on what a prospective Cavs team would look like below.) The Lakers would be replacing the West's starting All-Star center with the East's starting All-Star center. That begs the question: just how big of an upgrade would Howard over Bynum be?
Last season, despite playing with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol (two noted scorers), Bynum produced points as frequently as did Howard, to the tune of 19 per 36 minutes. Of course, Dwight has been scoring at that level since 2007-08; Bynum just got there. You'd still consider Howard the more reliable scorer, but last season, he'd not have been an upgrade on Bynum in that category. Nor did he outpace Bynum in scoring efficiency: due to a free throw percentage that fell below 50 percent, Howard finished with a true shooting percentage (.569) lower than that of Bynum (.594). So Bynum scored as often as Howard, and did so more efficiently.
Howard wasn't really better than Bynum in any other offensive category, either: they had very similar offensive rebound rates, Dwight's assist rate (pretty low) was only marginally better than that of Bynum (both are essentially ball-stopping abysses) and Bynum had a rather lower turnover rate. In all, the two centers' offenses are a wash, with the reliability leaning toward Howard for doing it multiple years and the efficiency leaning toward Bynum.
Defense is where the difference is made: Howard has three Defensive Player of the Year awards, all well-deserved. Bynum doesn't even have an All-Defense team bid. That said, while Howard is one of the best defensive rebounders in history, Bynum is no slouch, finishing No. 5 in defensive rebound rate last season. Bynum's shotblocking rate is also commensurate with that of Dwight at right around 4 percent of opponent attempts. Howard is clearly better than Bynum on defense, but the margin is smaller than what the trophy case would indicate.
When considering whether Howard is enough of an upgrade, there are two other things to consider beyond the player comparison. The first is the cost. In this case, it's basically nil. There's almost no chance, barring catastrophic injury, that Howard will not earn out his max contract extension. He's 26, and while he would be coming off back surgery, he has had no other major injuries throughout his career. He's been remarkably consistent over the past five seasons. Bynum barely makes less, has had multiple knee injuries and has only played at a truly elite level for one season. If the Lakers are giving up only Bynum and perhaps a pick or two, the cost of the trade hardly registers.
The other item to consider is the Lakers' existing deficiencies, and whether Howard's advantages over Bynum address those. The answer here is a resounding yes ... at least on defense. The Lakers finished No. 13 in team defense last season, and No. 6 in both opponent shooting and defensive rebounding. Howard, if healthy and recovered, is an upgrade on Bynum in those two areas. Where L.A. really blew it was in turnover creation, where the Lakers were dead last. Howard isn't likely to help there, and really, you'd expect the aging Lakers to struggle there, though the full-season excision of Derek Fisher (who never met a passing lane he wouldn't ignore) could help.
Of course, the sub-elite 2011-12 Lakers also ranked just No. 10 on offense, lower than usual. As noted above, if we assume Bynum would continue at his current level of play, Howard isn't really an upgrade on that end. But Steve Nash sure as snot is an upgrade over Fisher, Steve Blake and Ramon Sessions. A Nash-Kobe-Pau attack itself is top-5 material. Including either Bynum or Howard makes it a serious contender for No. 1 over the Thunder, Spurs, Heat, Clippers, Nets or whoever. In that sense, because of the Nash acquisition's likely positive impact on L.A.'s offense (even at the cost of some small defensive slippage), upgrading the center position defensively is pretty much perfect. If Howard can vault the Lakers defense up to No. 7 or so, and Nash can help boost L.A. to No. 3 or better on offense, we could have an elite team on our hands once again.
But a team with that profile wouldn't be anything like an overwhelming title favorite. A team with that profile probably wouldn't rate higher than the team that smoked them in the playoffs this spring, the Thunder. Or higher than the team that smoked the Thunder, those pesky Miami Heat. Unless something derails those two clubs, you can keep the dynasty talk in your back pocket. The Lakers would be a legit title contender so long as Nash (38 years old) and Kobe (closing in on 34) were highly productive, but they wouldn't likely be a championship favorite in any season, let alone multiple seasons. Landing Nash and Howard would be great, but wouldn't renew the Lakers dynasty.
What a Howard-Bynum deal could do, though, is turn the Cavaliers into something special. Kyrie Irving might be the game's best young point guard not named Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook. He could end up better than either. Giving him a productive, elite center at this juncture would be trouble for the rest of the East. Bynum is 24, Irving is 20 and Cleveland has prospects like Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller in the mix. Let's just pre-schedule the League Pass Alert for all of 2014, alright?
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.