Simmons vs. Lowe: The Lakers
Zach Lowe and Bill Simmons [ARCHIVE]
January 23, 2013
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Editor's note: With the 2013 Lakers' season imploding within the implosion of the already-imploded season, Grantland's Zach Lowe and Bill Simmons finally caved and started exchanging e-mails about it. To their credit, they resisted the urge to do this for 10 solid weeks. Here's what transpired.
Lowe: So, the Lakers are 17-24.
Simmons: What??? Is that true? Why has ESPN been ignoring this story? What the hell?
Lowe: They're 12-19 since Mike D'Antoni got behind the bench. Their defense is allowing 105.3 points per 100 possessions, which would rank D'Antoni's Lakers about 27th overall (for the season, they rank 19th overall). Dwight Howard has been bad, both by his standards and by those of most good big-man defenders, but the Lakers overall have been much better defensively — about league-average — when he's on the floor.
Simmons: How sad is it that you're complimenting the Lakers for being "much better defensively" when Howard plays, even though they're only league-average? Remember when we were calling him the best defensive center of his generation? Just four years ago, we watched a half-decent Magic team surround him with 3-point shooters and ride his defense and athleticism to the 2009 Finals. Now he's part of the phrase "league-average"? I know this dumbfounding Lakers season is juggling about 39 different inexplicable subplots, but for me, Howard's decline from "third-best player in basketball" to "borderline All-Star" (which is what you called him in Tuesday's All-Star ballot column, and by the way, I totally agree) has been the single most staggering subplot. We're now 13 weeks into the 2012-13 season and Howard doesn't look any more or less mobile/spry/athletic/bouncy than he did on Halloween. He doesn't have the same hops. He's laboring. I watched him in person on Thursday night — he moves just as stiffly as Emeka Okafor does. He plays like a guy with a bad back. It hasn't gotten better. The fact that he's putting up solid numbers is kind of amazing.
Lowe: I think you're a little harsh on Dwight, considering it might take better than league-average individual defense to drag this roster to league-average defense, if that makes sense.
Simmons: You're right. Still, remember last summer when we were assuming Howard would fix whatever problems they had? Everyone thought he'd revert to being 2009-2010-2011 Howard … eventually. And that just hasn't happened. There is no evidence that 2009-2010-2011 Howard is coming back. None.
Lowe: I've already written that on some nights, he looks more like Carlos Boozer (sorry, Booz!) than Howard's old self — he's slower on his feet, not as good at positioning himself to cut off pocket passes, and often swiping with his arms instead of sliding his feet to get into proper position. Shoot, Marco Belinelli turned the corner on him in crunch time Monday night in Chicago. His back-line help defense has been slower than usual, and he and Pau Gasol just haven't nailed down any defensive chemistry. He's also been a part of L.A.'s god-awful transition defense — as has Kobe (always gambling for steals in that split second of offense-to-defense chaos after a turnover) and everyone else. He's just slow, basically.
Simmons: Hold on, we have to wait for the Orlando Magic fans to stop high-fiving.
Lowe: By the way: I (fake) voted Howard MVP in 2011 and thought he was the second-best player in the league after that season. Kevin Durant would have passed him by now regardless, but Howard was that good.
Simmons: Yessir. After the 2011 season ended, you could safely say three players guaranteed you 46-plus wins if you gave them 11 average teammates — LeBron, Howard and Durant. Now? It's a two-man list. And I don't think people realize how young Howard is … he just turned 27 years old. He's two months older than Rajon Rondo! For everyone saying, "Well, he just has to play himself back into shape," um … how do we know for sure? Maybe he's never going to be the same. I remember when Larry Johnson was battling a herniated disk in the mid-'90s, he had the surgery and everyone said, "He'll be fine, he'll be the old LJ soon." Never happened. He lost his explosiveness, stopped being the same rebounder, and reinvented himself as an outside shooter. Check this out …
Larry Johnson, age 24: 40.5 MPG, 22.1 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 4.3 APG, 53% FG, 18.9 PER Larry Johnson, age 29: 34.4 MPG, 12.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 51% FG, 15.8 PER Larry Johnson, age 30: 33.4 MPG, 12.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.4 APG, 46% FG, 14.6 PER
So for anyone saying, "Howard just needs to play himself back into shape," what evidence do we have that it will happen?
Lowe: It's tough to find equivalency between injuries, only because each case is specific to each player's injury, age, recovery tendencies, genetics, etc. Players have managed back issues before — including Steve Nash for several years in his mid-30s and beyond — and Howard is still pretty young. But I suppose it's possible he never regains 100 percent of his peak. Hard to know either way.
Simmons: The red flag for me: Howard isn't a physically overpowering presence like, say, Shaq was. His athleticism was what made him overpowering, no different than LeBron, Russell Westbrook or even Serge Ibaka (on some nights, anyway). Athletically, Dwight was on another planet. He could jump three times before everyone else jumped twice. He lived above the rim — you literally couldn't keep him away from it. Now you can. So would they consider dealing him? That question ballooned into a legitimate news story last night after ESPN.com reported that Dwight was unhappy: Suddenly, if you're the Lakers, maybe you should consider keeping Gasol and trading Howard (someone who might be leaving next summer, anyway) over dealing Gasol for 45 cents on the dollar. They've botched Gasol's trade value so badly, it just seems like they'd get more value for Howard, right?
Lowe: I just can't see them trading Howard unless he demands it (and who knows, maybe we're headed that way). As you say, there is a degree of uncertainty over his recovery from back surgery, but one end of that uncertainty has him rediscovering his peak form in short order. If he does that, you have to keep him around, especially since the other All-Star center whom you traded for him only makes news for growing his hair out and taking stand-still 3s in practice at this point. But the iffy chemistry going on in L.A. right now at least leaves the Howard free-agency door open. Dallas and Atlanta must be itching to pitch him.
Simmons: It's going to hinge on the team's level of desperation. If you're Dallas, you just blew a title defense AND the tail end of Dirk Nowitzki's prime. You're in NBA no-man's land — fringe lottery, fringe playoffs — without a single under-27 player to build around unless you overpay O.J. Mayo. You're also owned by someone who despises...
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