Dwight Howard will keep his beaming smile much to the chagrin of teams and fans across the league. After a year of committing some of the biggest PR blunders in NBA history, Howard has found himself in exactly the position he had hoped for- competing for a championship in a highly lucrative market. As part of a four-team trade on Friday, Howard became the newest center for the Los Angeles Lakers, continuing the team’s long tradition of acquiring All Star big men in highly expensive fashion. When one considers what past Lakers centers (Shaq, Kareem and Wilt) have done during their career in Southern California, there is reason to believe Dwight and his new teammates may pose a serious threat to the Western Conference competitors in the foreseeable future.
With Howard now on the starting roster, the Lakers are a true powerhouse in the league. By joining Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, the Lakers’ starting five will have accounted for 33 All Star appearances. If that fact alone does not give rivals cause for fear, it is also worth noting the Lakers have improved their bench considerably by adding Jodie Meeks this past week and Antawn Jamison earlier this summer. Simply put, the team is stacked. Only a few teams will have a roster that can not only handle but also compete with this talent. The Thunder will still be able to hold their own due to their speed, athleticism and any improvement from Durant, Ibaka, Harden and Westbrook this offseason. However, there is another team that might be able to shake this Lakers cage- your very own Minnesota Timberwolves.
While this prediction seems bold and arguably outrageous given the Wolves’ past shortcomings, there is reason to not only entertain this possibility but perhaps even take it seriously. Here are the factors to consider when examining these teams against each other: roster matchups, Adelman’s coaching success and looming risks for the Lakers.
1. Roster Matchups
There are only a few centers in the league that can match the strength and size of Dwight Howard. There are even fewer centers that can actually slow him down. One could argue a member of this select party is Nikolai Pekovic. In their one meeting this season, Pekovic was able to put Howard in foul trouble early and hold him to a mere 4-11 shooting. Alternatively, Pekovic was able to score 16 points and grab 13 boards, proving he was a player to be watched throughout the season.
If Howard and Pekovic are indeed the elephants of the league, then consider Rubio and Nash the respective mice. Just in the way that Nash can find more holes than Swiss cheese in a team’s defense, so can Rubio. Their craftiness and overall court vision is unrivaled amongst their peers, making them the perfect matchup for this scenario. Before his injury, Rubio barely trailed Nash in APG and quickly became the trusted leader of the Wolves squad. If Kobe does not embrace Nash’s play the way the Wolves did with Rubio, it is possible Rubio could have an edge over his elder.
We saw in yesterday’s Olympic final that Love was desperately needed to battle Pau Gasol throughout the third and fourth quarter. Love was able to quickly limit Gasol's output and secure key rebounds to help lead the US to victory. Like Gasol, Love was incredibly valuable to his Olympic team in generating extra possessions from his size and work on the boards. But consider this stat per Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune- Pau Gasol & Kevin Love grabbed 61 rebounds each (most in Olympics). The difference- their minutes on the court: Gasol (228) & Love (138). Love is considered by many to be the best power forward in the game right now. While he might not be as strong defensively as Gasol, he is arguably the more valuable commodity due to his three point shooting and rebounding skills.
Bryant and Roy may not appear comparable in the slightest; however, even they own some distinct similarities. Both are recovering from the same blood-spinning procedure they took on this past year. Their success hinges on whether their knees can continue to battle the swelling and soreness as they play on. Bryant has proven he can still compete at a high level, inspiring Roy to pursue the same goal. Over the course of the next season, we will see if this surgery is truly revolutionary or simply a band-aid for greater ailments. On a side note, one can also not deny that before Roy went out he was one of the best closers in the game, a role that he and Bryant will likely take upon themselves even as they battle injuries.
2. Rick Adelman’s Past Success
Think back to the ‘Sacramento Queens,’ labeled as such by Shaquille O’Neal when he proclaimed “We ain’t scared of the Sacramento Queens” during the 2002 Western Conference Finals. This Sacramento Kings squad, coached by Rick Adelman, was desperately close to reaching the NBA Finals and making Shaq and his fellow Lakers the butt of their own joke. The Kings nearly defeated the mighty Lakers if not for some timely whistles, still highly controversial to this day. This hard fought series became the heart of the Donaghy allegations and its egregious calls still leaves a lasting stain on basketball a decade later. Spectators across the league were left to ask “What if?”, wondering if Adelman’s Kings were robbed for a chance at basketball glory.
Fast-forward to today and you’ll notice the 2012 Timberwolves seem to mirror that 2002 Kings squad with each team built around supreme foreign talent (Rubio, Kirilenko, Pekovic/ Turkoglu, Stojakovic and Divac) and players capable of knocking down corner threes (Budinger, Shved, Roy/ Jackson, Christie, Stojakovic) and effectively cutting to the basket. Add a once-in-a-generation forward/center hybrid in Love and Webber and one can dream these Wolves may go just as deep into the playoffs. The one person that will be able to shape this team into a strong playoff competitor is Rick Adelman. His unique ability to manage game lineups and draw the most from young talent could very well take these Wolves further than most expect.
3. Looming Risks for Lakers
Adelman is largely considered one of the best coaches in the league; the same cannot be said for Lakers coach Mike Brown. Many wondered if Brown would even return to coach the Lakers after losing to the Thunder in last year’s playoffs. Back for another shot, it will be championship or bust for Brown. Unlike Adelman, Brown is not nearly as effective at toying with lineups and tapping into his players’ innate talents. This fault leaves room for other teams to exploit the Lakers, forcing mismatches upon them and changing the tempo of the game.
The Lakers may also be forced to learn once again that the first time isn’t always a charm. We have seen multiple times throughout NBA history that chemistry doesn’t always develop within one season. Even after securing Shaq, Kareem and Wilt, the Lakers were never able to make the championship their first year. With nagging injuries plaguing Nash, Howard and Bryant, this season may be an even greater test for how quickly this team can mesh together. Wolves should view this situation as an excellent opportunity to not only make a splash in the playoffs but also threaten the Lakers if they ever see each other in the postseason.
The NBA is a league of favorites. Spectators and fans alike are more prone to make guarantees than to consider upsets and favor underdogs. More opinions will state with confidence that the Lakers are going to the Championship than the Wolves will make it past the first round of the playoffs. Let’s say the Lakers secure the #1 or 2 playoff seed and the Wolves land in the 7th or 8th spot. Who’s to say there isn’t a fighting chance for the team with more lakes than celebrities? Maybe there isn’t enough supporting evidence to make an argument for this case and this article is just a shot in the dark. One way or another, there is always room for hope and the potential for history to be made.