Any credible analysis of the blockbuster Dwight Howard trade has termed it a clear win for the Los Angeles Lakers. After getting significantly better in July with the addition of point guard Steve Nash, the Lakers have now added the NBA's best center and look primed to challenge the Miami Heat for the NBA title next season. It was a great trade for the team, the kind that any front office needs to make when it's available.
Yet, while the Lakers pretty obviously improved themselves on Thursday night, they are far from a sure thing. Even before Howard's arrival, L.A. had a lot to figure out for next season at both ends of the court. While Nash is one of the best offensive point guards in NBA history and makes everyone around him better, he's also used to handling the ball a lot — when he passes, it's usually because a shot is clearly available, not because he's beginning to initiate the offense. There's a question as to exactly how Nash's role will change on a team that also includes Kobe Bryant, another player used to handling the ball who hasn't always been a willing sharer with stars such as Pau Gasol and the now-departed Andrew Bynum.
Would the Lakers shift to becoming more of a pick-and-roll team with Nash, or would they feature some uneasy hybrid of offenses controlled by Nash and Kobe? With Howard on board, these questions only become greater concerns.
On a very basic level, the Lakers have enough high-profile new players that they will take time to become comfortable with each other and maximize their production. This is just how basketball works — the Miami Heat were supposed to be an immediate juggernaut, remember, and they still took more than a season to round into true championship form. In Los Angeles, the challenge is in many ways tougher because these players didn't come together with the specific plan of playing with each other — trades and free-agent signings happened to present themselves and everyone agreed it was in their best interests to join up. Bryant might have supported teaming up with Howard, but they didn't engineer this trade in a direct way. There was less time to sort out the egos; for all we know, Howard is coming to Los Angeles with the expectation of being the Lakers' biggest star.
Despite these likely growing pains, there are some fairly obvious paths to success for the Lakers. Any team with Howard, Nash, and Gasol would figure to be a dominant pick-and-roll team — Nash runs the play better than any point guard in the league, and Gasol and Howard are among the best big man at it, as well. However, the pick-and-roll takes time and chemistry to perfect, and it's not certain that the Lakers will build their offense around the play, either. Bryant is not the best-in-the-league superstar he once was, but he's still good enough to require the ball a fair share of the time. Will he be happy running plays with Gasol and Howard, or will he need isolations to succeed? Would he be happy playing off the ball in a Nash/Howard (or Gasol) pick-and-roll in key spots? Does Mike Brown have a system in mind for all these players, or is he going to make it up as it goes along? These questions can all be answered, but we don't know when or how that will happen.
In less specific terms, Howard will also need to adjust his attitude to be at his best with the Lakers. As Adrian Wojnarowski detailed earlier Friday, Howard has to adjust his attitude in a manner fitting with the Lakers' championship aspirations. It might not be in Howard's best interests to be the joking, approachable star he was with Orlando, both because the vast majority of the public no longer buys that persona and because it's not the serious approach many think champions need. At the same time, playing in Los Angeles will surely afford Howard more opportunities to appear on talk shows and cameo on sitcoms. Can he strike the right balance?
I don't mean to suggest that the Lakers aren't aware of these questions or that they're a disaster waiting to happen. Trading for Howard was a very smart move by any rationale, and they're now the odds-on favorites to win the West in 2012-13. But they have a lot to get right, particularly with so much money committed to four players and the continued need to build up the bench. It's important to remember, beyond all else, that this trade was only part of the process of building a championship team, not the end goal. The hard part starts now.