Throughout the frustrating dance he’s been doing with the Orlando Magic in the past year, Dwight Howard has made it known he doesn’t want to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.
It may end up being a blessing in disguise for the Lakers if he actually gets his wish, despite other possible destinations dropping out of the Howard sweepstakes. The Lakers may be better off without Howard, and not just because of the diva act he’s been pulling with Orlando.
Howard might never embrace the legacy and responsibility that comes with being the next big man in L.A., even if he seems perfect for the part. He’s shown no appetite for following in the massive footsteps of Shaquille O’Neal, the last Superman center to migrate from Orlando to Los Angeles looking to win rings alongside Kobe Bryant.
If you're the Lakers, why not stick with the guy who is already here, and performing ably under that pressure?
You can make an argument that Andrew Bynum, not Howard, is the best center in the NBA right now. This notion that the Lakers will go from championship contenders to championship favorites by swapping Bynum for Howard is based more in fantasy and popularity than reality and numbers.
There is no question that Howard’s career resume is more distinguished than Bynum’s, but he is also two years older and has essentially been the centerpiece of the Magic attack since being drafted first overall in 2004.
The 24-year-old Bynum is still emerging as a low-post force. Due to some early injuries, 2011-12 was only the second season in which he started at least 60 games, and the first in which he was a featured option in the Lakers’ offense.
Some may be concerned with Bynum’s injury history but he just went through a grueling, condensed 66-game schedule relatively unharmed. And the comparative statistical output of Howard and Bynum last season was closer than you might think, per 36 minutes of floor time.
Bynum was far superior at the free throw line (69.2 percent to 49.1 percent), a place where Howard has been a liability in late-game situations. And though Howard was slightly ahead in points per game (19.4 to 19.1), rebounds (13.7 to 12.1) and assists (1.8 to 1.4), remember that Bynum (unlike Howard) shared the floor with All-Star-caliber offensive teammates in Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
My guess is we would see Bynum match or exceed Howard’s numbers if he had a team of his own next season. Would Howard fare as well as or better than he has in the past if he were in Los Angeles? It’s an open question.
Bynum understands his role in the Lakers’ offense and in the pecking order that currently exists. While he has at times rebelled against it, he has essentially grown up in the game with Bryant eating first and knows how to share the ball with both Kobe and Gasol. Howard has been at the head of the table in Orlando since he came into the league. Would he be comfortable playing a secondary role in his first years as a Laker? Would he be content to let Bryant go first, and on some nights to let Gasol or Steve Nash go second and third? After watching Howard go head-to-head with his head coach and a general manager in Orlando in recent months, I have my doubts.
There is no question Howard is an elite defender, but the 26-year-old’s blocks-per-36-minutes rate has dipped in the last two seasons, and Bynum’s career blocks-per-36 rate (2.2) is actually the same as Howard’s. Does trading one for the other represent a significant defensive upgrade?
While Howard has perhaps hit his development ceiling and could regress following back surgery, there is still a sense that Bynum is continuing to grow and mature as a player. It’s by far the biggest reason the Lakers have always been hesitant to trade him. They don’t want to be known as the team that traded away the best center in basketball for a one-year rental or for a player whose best years are already in his rear view mirror.
In a city attracted by big names and bigger stars, Howard will always appeal to fans’ imaginations. But Bynum is not just the consolation prize in the seemingly never-ending Howard sweepstakes.