Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Center Of Attention

You will excuse Magic Fan if he's not real happy with how this is going down. But it might be -- might be -- a good thing.

Dwight Howard, the defensive hammer and recognized best center in the Association (and thus, the world) is the focus of the whirlwind that is the NBA trade deadline. If Orlando were New York, LA or Boston, this would have reached Lin-Tebow levels of media coverage, but still, it is an awful lot of words about something that hasn't happened. But that's what happens in these situations now, since we like to watch soap opera much more than we like to watch ball.

Predicting the situation is pointless, but the sensible thing to do for Orlando is move him. Everyone thinks he's going to New Jersey with a new stadium to fill, with side plays for rent-to-own teams like Portland, Houston and Boston (yes, this is the Rajon Rondo move that won't die) cropping up. The Knicks, Clippers and Lakers have always been in consideration. But what no one really seems to be discussing is whether Howard *really* matters, because while he might be the best center in the game, I'm not sure that you win with him as the best player on your team. (Oh, and one other thing about anyone who thinks that Brook Lopez is a decent consolation prize? He can't stay healthy and doesn't rebound worth a damn. Kind of a problem for a guy playing center.)

The whole thing seems unreal and astounding, that a young center in the prime of his career might not be relevant to a championship conversation. But, well, no. The free throw problems aren't going away, so if he's your horse, you've got to be ahead late and/or avoid close games, and no one does that while winning a championship. You can get him in foul trouble without too much trouble; he also tends to take technicals that lead to more calls. His offensive game is much better than when he started, but still, not really all that great; he's best served by cleaning up garbage and finishing what a point guard starts. The defensive reputation is stronger than the reality, since the blocks don't stay in bounds. He does get away with a lot of goaltending, though.

And the really naughty thing that we're not allowed to say, because LeBron James hasn't won a title and Kobe Bryant has always tied his rings to having Shaq or Gasol inside to defer attention, and the Spurs won with Duncan and the Celtics won with Garnett and both of those guys had credible sidekick 5s when they weren't doing the job themselves... is that a stud center is merely the finisher in an NBA world where close and late also requires you to be the igniter. The game has changed, and more importantly, big men don't get bailout foul calls, or hit enough of them, to make them the preferred option in close and late.

So that's where the Magic are: more or less forced to make a move, which hardly seems like a good bargaining position... but also moving a guy who is more than a little overrated, in an era where, like the "importance" of a baseball closer, the true value of a dominant center is probably wildly out of line with the actual value. (Especially when, like Howard, his value is problematic.) All I know is that if I was starting a franchise and trying to win a championship in 2012, here are the guys that I'd rather have than him, without even a lot of thinking about it... Kevin Durant. LeBron James. Dwyane Wade. Kobe Bryant. Derrick Rose. Russell Westbrook. Chris Paul. Kevin Love. LaMarcus Aldridge.

Then, maybe, Dwight. But only because Pau Gasol seems messed up in the head.

And there has never been, in the history of the Association, a time when you could rattle off 10 guys to answer that question before you got to a center...

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