Dwight Howard is going the be a Laker, and aside from turning the Lakers into serious title contenders, not to mention the kind of superteam that David Stern's moronic lockout was supposed to prevent from ever forming, Howard's arrival in L.A. brings the league to a philosophical crossroads.
We'll get to that in a second. First, let's remember something: David Stern and the owners did everything they could to convince us that their lockout was about restoring competitive balance to the league by restricting player movement and thus the building of superteams. That line of reasoning was always specious and not a little cynical. Superteams come together because of maximum salaries, not despite them. There is a maximum dollar amount that Dwight Howard can make each year, and that dollar amount doesn't approach his value on an open market. If Howard—or any other great player—can't get true value out of his contract, he'll go looking for it in other places: on a great team in a large market, for instance. The max salary limits the very best thing that teams like Orlando have to offer: money.
Los Angeles gamed the system in a way that the Knicks and Clippers weren't able to. Those latter two teams got the unhappy superstars they'd targeted, but there was a hastiness about the transactions that added some semblance of fairness to the deals. The Knicks panicked and gave away far more assets than they needed to in order to acquire Anthony, and the Clippers were eager enough to jump into the L.A. spotlight that they sent Eric Gordon, their second-best player at the time, to the Hornets (who had lost any negotiating leverage they might have had when Stern scotched their first Paul trade, to the Lakers).
Even the formation of the Miami Heat's superteam, with all its premeditation, was not without its share of clumsiness. The Heat are hardly a perfectly constructed NBA team, more the product of certain stars aligning than of cold-eyed longterm calculation.
The Lakers knew better than to panic. They slow-played the Magic into gifting them Dwight Howard. There were any number of times over the course of the offseason that they could have gotten anxious and shipped both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol out of town to get Howard. But they waited, knowing that the league is tilted in their favor even post-lockout, and eventually got the trade they wanted all along.
The Lakers haven't just constructed a superteam; they've constructed an idealized version of a great NBA ensemble. They have their distributing point guard in Steve Nash; their scoring two-guard in Kobe Bryant; their classic big man in Dwight Howard; and a versatile, do-anything power forward in Pau Gasol. This team may as well have been grown in a lab.
The Lakers now stand athwart everything the Thunder-Heat finals seemed to portend for the NBA: nothing short of a new era, one defined by hybridization and positional flexibility. Guerrilla basketball. Both Oklahoma City and Miami featured players who refused to fit into any particular mold, and yet both teams managed to find ways to unleash the talents of their players by eschewing the conventions of playing style and lineup construction.
That made for great, dynamic basketball, but it wasn't an easy thing to accomplish. The Heat seemed to shrug into and out of different identities every few weeks, and the Thunder spent years carefully and patiently constructing a winning team through the draft and many clever, small-bore acquisitions. The Thunder do not have an ideal roster, but they have one that succeeds because they worked so hard to make it succeed. The future was at hand.
Not anymore. The Lakers have gone and bought themselves a ready-made all-star roster. Dwight Howard will assume his place as fourth-best center in the team's history in L.A., behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly of the Milwaukee Bucks), Wilt Chamberlain (formerly of the Warriors and Sixers), and Shaquille O'Neal (formerly of the Magic). We needed the lockout, according to the NBA, to open the door for more teams like the Thunder. Instead, here come the same old Lakers.