The city of Orlando provided Dwight Howard plenty of shelter.
Playing in the smaller market shielded him from the criticism superstars receive for failing to advance in the playoff for two consecutive years.
All of his contributions were celebrated, and his run to the Finals was still considered a success even though the Magic failed to win its first championship in franchise history.
The entire organization attempted to cater to all of his wishes, starting with constructing a new arena him to call home.
The team even was willing to let him decide if contracts for the coach and general manager would be renewed, but it still wasn’t enough for Howard to want to remain with the Magic.
Once again, the lure of Hollywood proved to be too much for Orlando to retain a dominant center.
Only now, the pressure is on Howard.
Reaching the Finals once in eight years won’t be considered an accomplishment for the Lakers, but an embarrassment.
The trade to Los Angeles comes with a level of expectations Howard has yet to experience during his eight year career in the NBA.
Success for the Lakers is measured with only one statistic: championships.
Regular season accomplishments, such as leading the league in rebounds for the fifth time in six years, or winning the Defensive Player of the Year award for the fourth time, won’t mean anything if the Lakers don’t win a fourth game during the NBA Finals.
While Dwight Howard needs one championship to even have his name mentioned with the best centers ever to play the game, Kobe Bryant is one title away from cementing himself among the best to ever play the game.
By playing at an elite level for such an extended period of time, Bryant has scored at least 22.5 points per game for each of the past 12 seasons, the 34-year-old’s career resume is simply staggering.
Bryant has been chosen as an All-Star 14 times in his career, claiming MVP honors twice in the contest, led the league in scoring twice, named league MVP in 2007-08, has won five championships and was selected MVP twice in the NBA Finals.
Just 347 points stand between Bryant and Michael Jordan’s all-time record for points scored in the post season. An extended playoff run will likely allow him to move past him in the record books and an opportunity to equal his collection of championship rings.
Smart Move: For the first time since Bryant was added to the team in 1996, the Lakers have a true point guard to pair him with in the back court. Los Angeles traded for Steve Nash, a player still playing at an elite level even though he’ll turn 39 prior to the All-Star break. Nash has led the league in total assists each of the past three seasons and should be motivated, once again playing on a championship caliber roster.
Questionable Move: The NBA lockout happened in an attempt to create more parity throughout the league and prevent the Lakers from doing, well, exactly what they did this off-season. Before taxes, the $100,180,731 payroll in Los Angeles is $15 million more than any other team in the NBA and if the roster remains as currently constructed, once the graduated tax comes into effect, in two years, the Lakers could exceed $200 million in taxes and salaries.
Watch Out For: Chemistry. The last time the Lakers added two Hall-of-Fame caliber players to the roster, immediately following three consecutive championships from 2001-03, turmoil derailed the team. Gary Payton and Karl Malone were added to the roster, but it wasn’t enough to hold off Detroit in the NBA Finals. The Lakers have assembled a great team, perhaps the best in the league, but the roster has to click immediately or face tremendous scrutiny.
With all of the focus on the players that play above the rim in Lob City, the most important piece of the roster may be the return of a 36-year-old guard that loves to finger roll the ball on fast breaks.
A torn Achilles tendon in February kept Chauncey Billups out of the lineup for the rest of the year, forcing him to sit on the bench and just watch as San Antonio swept the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals.
Billups only played 20 games last season, but Los Angeles went 14-6 with him in the lineup as he provided a nice balance with Chris Paul in the back court.
For the first time in his 14-year career, Billups lined up at shooting guard, displaying the ability to score when necessary, such as his 32 point effort in a win over Denver.
When his jumper wasn’t falling, such as his 1-for-9 shooting performance against the Raptors, Billups just let his point guard instincts kick in, and he was still a key contributor as he dished out 14 assists.
At the beginning of the month, Billups returned to the floor and participated in full contact drills and is ready to make up for a season that was taken away from him too soon last year.
Smart Move: Los Angeles added multiple pieces to shore up its bench. The Clippers reserves played an average of just 16.9 minutes, scoring 26.5 points per game, the fourth fewest in the league. Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford all provide versatility along with a much needed scoring touch to Los Angeles.
Questionable Move: The Clippers have a championship caliber roster, but Vinny Del Negro may not be the best coaching candidate to guide the team. Del Negro is in the final year of his contract and his future could be a distraction for a team hoping to become one of the league’s elite next season.
Watch Out For: Progress from Blake Griffin. A knee injury prevented Griffin from representing the United States in the Olympics, but he is now fully healthy and instead of chasing a gold medal this summer, he supposedly added a reliable jump shot to his game. Fifty four percent of his shot attempts came right at the rim, by being a little less predictable, he could develop into an MVP candidate.
It takes a special player to make a guard that has scored over 24 points per game twice over the past three seasons expendable.
Thompson became a starter midway through the year and responded by averaging 18.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.1 steals per game.
His 41.4 percent shooting from 3-point range led all rookies and ranked 18th throughout the league and during the summer league, he set a record, shooting 72 percent from beyond the arc, sinking 10 3-pointers in two contests.
A full season in the starting lineup could have Thompson in the discussion for the All-Star game.
Smart Move: Harrison Barnes could have been the second overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Charlotte instead opted for a defensive minded guard, and the free fall of one of the most talented players in his draft class began. Cleveland picked a sixth man from Syracuse, Sacramento and Portland addressed needs at other positions, enabling Golden State to select him seventh overall. The Warriors were the only team to finish with a perfect record in summer league play and Barnes led the way, posting 16.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game.
Questionable Move: The Warriors may be holding out to see how Stephen Curry’s surgically repaired ankle responds, but not offering him a contract extension may come back to haunt the team. If he is able to begin the summer as a restricted free agent, Golden State could lose him to a back loaded deal.
Watch Out For: Health. Two of the top players on the team, center Andrew Bogut and Curry combined to play just 38 games last season. The competition for any playoff seed is difficult enough in the Western Conference, but if either player misses significant time, the Warriors may be headed for their fifth straight losing season.
For two and a half seasons, Dragic served as Nash’s understudy, until he was shipped to Houston.
Once a starting position opened up because of an illness, Dragic took full advantage, averaging 18 points, 8.4 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game.
Much like Nash, Dragic showed the ability to connect on shots from all over the floor, again as a starter, he shot 49 percent from the field, 37.9 percent from 3-point range and 83.9 percent from the foul line.
After Nash was dealt to the Lakers, the first move Phoenix made was to bring back Dragic in free agency.
Now the starter for the Suns, Dragic is hoping to lead the team into a new era.
Smart Move: It isn’t often a dominant low post scorer just becomes available. Luis Scola was a cap casualty in Houston, tossed into free agency after the Rockets bought out his contract under the amnesty clause. Phoenix blindly outbid Dallas and Cleveland for his services, adding another scoring threat for the Suns for three-years $13 million.
Questionable Move: Although it could be resolved by with a last minute free agent acquisition, the front court is extremely thin. Channing Frye is out indefinitely with an enlarged heart. Jermaine O’Neal, the team’s backup center, has played just 49 games over the past two seasons.
Watch Out For: Low post play. Joining Scola up front is Marcin Gortat, one of 10 players to average a double-double last season. Phoenix ranked sixth in the NBA, shooting 45.8 percent from the field and could have that increase if the duo works well together.
Sacramento was determined to find a starting point guard in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Once training camp began it was clear Sacramento did find its point guard, only he was selected 50 spots after Fredette.
Isaiah Thomas, the final player selected in the 2011 Draft, outplayed Fredette and every other point guard on the roster, earning the starting job for good in mid-February.
The 5-foot-9 guard averaged 11.5 points, 4.1 assists and displayed a reliable shot from all over the floor.
Thomas now faces the difficult task of bringing cohesion to one of the most jumbled rosters in the league.
Smart Move: Sacramento may have formed one of the most promising front court combinations in the league after selecting Thomas Robinson with the fifth overall pick last June. DeMarcus Cousins played at an All-Star level for extended stretches last season and Robinson’s presence gives the Kings another dominant rebounder and scoring threat near the basket.
Questionable Move: The Kings still have a crowded back court with shoot first players, with Fredette, Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton. At least one of those players has to be moved, and Francisco Garcia’s $6.1 million expiring contract could be the complimentary piece to get a deal completed.
Watch Out For: An All-Star caliber season from Cousins. All the 6-foot-11 center needs to do is become a better shooter from the field. Cousins shot 44.8 percent from the field last year and still averaged 18.1 points per game. The Kings plan on making Cousins the focal point of their offense and the additional looks could make him the first player to represent Sacramento in the All-Star game since Brad Miller and Peja Stojakovic in 2003-04.
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