Give And Go: Revisiting the four-team megatrade that sent Howard to Lakers
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth. Today’s focus is the four-team summer blockbuster that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers, Andrew Bynum to the Sixers, Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets and all sorts of spare parts to and from the Magic. (All stats and records are through Tuesday.)
1. Given their considerable struggles this season, is it still fair to say that the Lakers came out on top in the Dwight Howard megadeal?
Ben Golliver: At this moment, as we wait out Steve Nash’s seemingly endless recuperation, assessing the four-team trade feels like a matter of “Who lost the least” as opposed to who actually won. The losing list is long and applies to all four parties. The Lakers are the NBA’s biggest disappointment, and their lack of depth has been an issue from the start. The Sixers are crossing their fingers and hoping they get something — anything! — out of Bynum before it’s contract-negotiation time. The Nuggets are sitting at .500, off their pace from last year (albeit with a road-heavy schedule), and Iguodala has taken a slight step back. The Magic have overachieved, but there are other factors to consider: not having a single star or (star-type) player on the roster, sagging home attendance and an upcoming, years-long rebuild.
Lacking a clear alternative, the Lakers can call themselves winners. Just imagine how bad they would be if they were depending on a trio of Nash, Pau Gasol and Bynum this season. L.A. is playing flat and uninspired now, but things would be much bleaker if its savior was the guy bowling and playing Pop-a-Shot. Howard hasn’t played to his full capabilities yet, and the Lakers haven’t quite figured out how to best use him, but there’s no doubt he will have a more productive year than Bynum. His 18.7 points, 12.1 rebounds and two blocks per game can’t be easily dismissed.
The true test for the Lakers comes next summer. Right now, the Lakers’ best-case scenario looks like one-and-done in the playoffs. Howard signed up to win a title, not to replicate Orlando’s postseason fate, so something will have to give when it comes time to discuss his next contract: either he recalibrates his expectations slightly, the Lakers pull off a transformative move or two to surround Howard and Kobe Bryant with more talent, or he seeks another destination as a free agent.
Rob Mahoney: Absolutely. It’s unfair to judge this deal until all of L.A.’s core players are healthy. An adjustment period was expected because of Howard’s recovery from back surgery, but many assumed Nash would ease the team along while Howard progressed gradually. That clearly hasn’t happened, as Nash has missed 20 of 22 games because of a broken leg and some ensuing nerve irritation. Add in backup point guard Steve Blake’s injury, and it’s a recipe for disaster. This was always going to be a top-heavy team, but remove Nash (whose absence takes away some of Howard’s and Gasol’s production) and Blake and the structural integrity of the roster is clearly compromised.
But Howard will continue to get healthier and healthier, and Nash’s eventual return should help with some of the offensive disarray and locker-room funk. He’s not a cure-all, but he will make the Howard-infused Lakers look significantly better. And don’t forget: The Lakers are playing out this season as should-be contenders, but they’re hopeful that Howard will be the franchise cornerstone for the foreseeable future.
2. Knowing all that we know now about Bynum’s injuries, were the Sixers right to trade Iguodala and accept such a clear risk?
RM: Yes. Bynum will inevitably miss more time because of complications with his right knee, but he’s still a potential superstar who could anchor the Sixers in a way that few other players could. There’s risk involved, but it was worth it. As good as Iguodala is, Bynum — supposing that Philadelphia is able to re-sign him — is a massive trade return for a player who couldn’t give the Sixers what they so badly needed (shot creation). Bynum will have his work cut out for him and is sure to see plenty of double- and triple-teams once he does finally make his Sixers debut. But those growing pains are perfectly manageable when viewed within the scope of all that Philadelphia has to gain here, and how well Bynum fits — in terms of age and talent, if not specific skills — into the team’s new plans.
BG: I don’t have any problem with the Sixers’ move from an injury-assessment standpoint. They were weighing one last season with Iguodala, who was unlikely to carry the Sixers deeper into the postseason than he did in 2012, or the potential of six or more years of Bynum, assuming they were able to re-sign him next summer. Bynum was coming off a career year in which he missed only six games and averaged 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, and there wasn’t any major red flag that indicated he would follow this path. His current problems seem to have popped up, or at least worsened, since the trade.
The long-term benefit of Bynum, it should be noted, is still there. He’s 25; even if injuries cut short the overall length of his career, you would think he has plenty of productive basketball left. Like Howard in L.A., judging this trade for Philadelphia boils down to whether he re-signs next summer. If that happens and he’s able to give the Sixers at least two strong years, it’s unlikely they will lament moving Iguodala. That said, the waiting game on an injured player is agonizing.
3. Iguodala is an excellent player, but did acquiring him at the cost of a few rotation players make the Nuggets a less effective offensive team?
RM: It would be hard to argue otherwise at this point. Iguodala is suffering from a clear crisis of confidence and has been turning the ball over at a career-high rate while struggling with his scoring consistency. Denver’s offense in general is a mess, plagued by spacing issues so severe that the Nuggets often position a player out of bounds in their hopeless attempts to stretch the court. They’re still 10th in the league in points per possession, but that ranking is a glaring drop given that Denver has been a top-three offensive team in each of the last three seasons.
The specific costs for the Nuggets (Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington) were entirely fair in the context of the trade, but coach George Karl and general manager Masai Ujiri perhaps underestimated what losing two of Denver’s top perimeter shooters would do for a team that already ranked a lowly 24th in three-point accuracy last season. Ty Lawson’s driving lanes are clogged with defensive traffic, and with virtually all of the big men on the roster unable to create for themselves, the Nuggets’ up-tempo offense often grinds to a screeching halt.
BG: The Nuggets have taken a step back offensively, but it’s only a catastrophe relative to their own elite expectations: They’ve fallen from No. 3 in offensive efficiency in 2011-12 to No. 10 this season. The floor-spacing issue isn’t going away unless they make a trade, but this generally looks like a group that hasn’t found its mojo. That will happen when you play 17 of your first 23 games on the road, including visits to a bunch of tough places: Philadelphia, Miami, San Antonio, Memphis, Atlanta and New York, to name six. The average winning percentage of Denver’s opponents through Tuesday was .531, fifth best in the league.
The Nuggets are averaging 103.8 points at home and 99.5 points on the road. I expect Denver’s offensive numbers — not to mention its record — to improve as the home/road disparity evens out. Lawson, Danilo Gallinari and Iguodala all are performing well below their capabilities. Denver could use a shooter, but its key players should show improvement simply from playing together for more than about 20 games.
I still like this trade for the Nuggets simply because moving Harrington’s contract to acquire Iguodala, who has an opt-out clause next summer, makes life more flexible. Ujiri has proved to be a wizard and if the Nuggets’ current deficiencies remain lasting issues, he has the vision and the stomach to make the necessary moves. The real question that this slow start raises is this: Is Iguodala the guy you commit big resources to keep long term? Thankfully, Ujiri doesn’t have to answer that one until July.
4. Orlando didn’t want to rebuild around Bynum, opting instead to acquire a handful of decent players and picks in exchange for Howard. Is that move any more explicable now than it was at the time of the deal?
BG: I totally understood the conclusion that tying your franchise’s fate to Bynum — who has an injury history and an “unusual” personality — wasn’t a good idea. Any All-Star who publicly admits he doesn’t participate in timeout huddles is probably going to have trouble adapting to a rebuilding environment where expectations on him as Howard’s replacement were likely to be sky-high.
My problem with Orlando wasn’t passing on Bynum so much as the other pieces it received instead. I liked the inclusion of Afflalo, who has helped the Magic to a surprising 8-12 start. Everything else, including the quality of the picks, seemed dubious. Moving Jason Richardson and Chris Duhon was definitely addition by subtraction for a rebuilding group, but the Magic just didn’t receive the top-level assets you would expect when trading a player of Howard’s caliber. If the Thunder acquired a Raptors first-round pick that’s only top-three protected in a deal for James Harden, the Magic surely could have done better than protected picks that could wind up falling in the 20s.
RM: The situation with Bynum is one that every franchise needs to evaluate for itself; some are better equipped to handle injury risks than others and have the personnel necessary to help manage the absence of a star player. The Magic clearly weren’t willing to invest so much money, time and cap space in a player with a clear history of injuries — and for that I can hardly fault them.
What I can fault them for is the nature of their overall return for Howard — a combination of underwhelming assets and bigger-than-expected contracts that will only make rebuilding that much more difficult. I like a lot of the players Orlando got back in the deal, but only when utilized in the right context. Afflalo would be a great choice for the final piece on a contending team, given that his contract (worth $31 million total through 2005-16) might otherwise clog up a team’s salary cap. Second-year center Nikola Vucevic and rookie forward Moe Harkless look to be solid role players and well worth the Magic’s time. Josh McRoberts is occasionally useful. And Harrington — who has not played for the Magic yet after offseason knee surgery — is good enough to attract trade offers around the deadline, and Orlando will undoubtedly look to unload him for another pick or prospect.
When all is said and done, the Magic will have harvested a handful of role players in a deal for an elite player at a coveted position. Even with every other team involved in the Howard trade struggling in its own way, Orlando’s self-imposed plight may be the most disappointing.
5. At this early stage, which team projects to be the biggest winner of the four-team blockbuster?
RM: The problems for the Lakers are both very real and very visible, but I’m still taking L.A. as the biggest winner — or at the moment, smallest loser? — of the deal. The Sixers are banking on Bynum’s health; the Magic will have to rebuild without giving themselves much of a head start; and the Nuggets are still a trade or two away from having a sensible roster. L.A. has underwhelmed but still has the innate advantage of having acquired Howard for an inferior player with even greater injury concerns. That’s a nice parlay, regardless of the Lakers’ 9-13 record.
BG: Against all odds, I would say the Lakers, too. The list of things not working for L.A. is extraordinarily long: transition defense, overall effort level, consistency on offense, health, point guard play, Gasol’s fit, bench contributions, etc. The list of things that are working begins with Bryant’s efficiency on offense and then immediately goes to Howard. He’s played at a “B” level by his standards, but that’s still better than everyone else surrounding him and far better than Bynum.
Longer term, assuming they can coax Howard into staying next summer, they will have one of the top-five players in the league to act as a magnet for stars interested in playing on the NBA’s biggest stage. That’s not bad at all.