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It might sound counterintuitive, but the latest round of star consolidation expanded the NBA landscape rather than shrunk it.
Put it this way: When the confetti dropped at the end of the NBA Finals in June, did you think anything could get in the way of a Heat-Thunder rematch in 2013?
Now, after an offseason haul that brought Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, the Lakers could very much obstruct it and add a host of storylines, potentially putting Nash into his first Finals, pitting Kobe versus LeBron in June, and making Heat president Pat Riley face the franchise that turned him into an NBA icon.
I still give Oklahoma City the edge at the outset, based on the Thunder's time and proven success together, fueled by the motivation of coming up short in the Finals. But there's always the possibility the Lakers' visions of Nash-Howard pick-and-rolls, of Dwight's defensive dominance, and of opponents unable to load up against Kobe Bryant could materialize right away. You can already categorize a Lakers-Thunder playoff series as epic.
So the upcoming season just got a lot more intriguing. Besides, what were people going to do now that the Heat's way worked and LeBron finally got his ring? Now there's a new team for the rest of the league to despise -- well, maybe the Lakers aren't new at this, but they'd definitely taken a backseat to the Heat for a couple of years.
It's a familiar role for the Lakers. It's no shock that they wound up the summer's biggest winners by landing Howard. The story always turns out this way for the Lakers. It's as unsurprising as a 007 movie ending with the villain's lair blown to bits and a beautiful woman cooing "Ohh, James" into the superspy's ear.
The astonishing team was Orlando. The Magic moved the best player involved and didn't get the second- or third-best player back. They realized from the outset that they weren't going to win the Dwight Howard trade. That didn't mean they had to settle for fourth place.
I told a general manager about the main components the Magic were getting in the deal -- Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic and draft picks that won't be in the lottery -- and he said "I don't get it for Orlando."
Another general manager said, "For me, the Houston young players might have been better. [Jeremy] Lamb and Terrence Jones and all that stuff."
When the Magic resisted Houston's heavy overtures during the summer league in July, there was a sense among league executives that Orlando might hold on to Howard until the trade deadline in February to extract the best deal. Then again, that was before the Magic had a coach.
As I listened to their new hire, Jacque Vaughn, articulate his vision for the team on Jim Rome's radio show Thursday morning, I realized there was no way the Magic could start training camp with Howard there. It would be unfair to Vaughn, an impossible start for a first-time head coach. Howard's presence would be a continuous circus and obstruct everything Vaughn was trying to do.
So yes, the clock was ticking. But it wasn't at the "time-for-the-kick" point in "Inception" yet. Maybe time will be on Orlando's side. Nobody liked what the Lakers got back from Miami in the Shaquille O'Neal deal, either. But in time GM Mitch Kupchak used those parts to acquire Pau Gasol, and in a secondhand way, Steve Nash. By the way, if the 2012 NBA offseason were the 2012 London Olympics, Kupchak would be Usain Bolt. Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison in, Andrew Bynum out.
Meanwhile, I credit the Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets for figuring out a way to draft behind the Lakers and improve their position. The 76ers and Andre Iguodala always felt stuck with each other. Now they both can move on, and Philadelphia added the next-best center to Howard in Andrew Bynum, with their home-team financial edge in re-signing him boosted by their proximity to his home state of New Jersey.
The Nuggets got an Olympic team member in Iguodala, who is a great fit for their style of play, and shed the financial obligations to Harrington and Afflalo. In short: better short term, cheaper long term.
I appreciate what Denver and Philadelphia did. Rather than whine about the unfairness of the biggest stars going to the biggest markets, they decided to get something out of the process for themselves. If it's inevitable -- as so many around the league felt about Howard and the Lakers -- then why not find a way to profit?
That's the only approach to take in the NBA these days. You can complain about the heat, or you can set up a lemonade stand.