Last week, Dwight Howard announced that he was leaving the Los Angeles Lakers after just one year, and taking his talents to the Houston Rockets. As a result, the Rockets are now in the the elite tier of the Western Conference, and the Lakers' upcoming season is hopeless.
Howard's last year was his worst in ages, but we can optimistically attribute much of that decline to his back and shoulder injuries (which he should heal from), and the difficulty of playing alongside Kobe Bryant and under Mike D'Antoni.
Howard's offensive production was down slightly last year, but he really suffered on defense. In his peak years in Orlando, Howard anchored a top-five NBA defense while surrounded by poor perimeter defenders. He was able to rotate out and prevent speedy guards from getting into the paint on pick and rolls. He was also able to challenge drivers who were getting to the rim, leading the league in blocks per game in the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 seasons. Howard was also capable of defending elite one-on-one post scorers.
After adding star 24-year-old guard James Harden last year, the Rockets became one of the most exciting teams in the league. They took a ton of the most efficient shots in the game and had the sixth best offense in the league. Star defensive center Omer Asik minimized opponent attempts at the rim and covered for the otherwise poor defense of the floor, allowing the Rockets to finish a respectable 16th in the league in defense. They finished with 45 wins in 82 games, though the fact that, on average, they outscored opponents by 3.5 points per game suggests that they should have won 50 games under luck-neutral conditions.
Assuming that Dwight is 85% of what he once was, he will represent a gigantic offensive upgrade over Asik, who struggles with the ball when he's more than an arm's length away from the basket. In Houston, Howard will have an elite guard that can run the pick and roll, and in Harden, he'll have a player who can shoot threes off the dribble. This should allow Howard tons of easy opportunities to roll up to the rim. And when the defense sends more players over to guard Howard, he will be surrounded by three-point shooters that can make them suffer. Defensively, Howard should be able to have the same positive impact as Asik. The 27-year-old Turk asked for a trade after finding out that Howard would be taking his starting job, but the Rockets are apparently not trading him. Asik will be an insurance policy if Howard has any injuries, and the two can play together in certain situations.
The Rockets are now looking like they are in the elite tier of the Western Conference, along with the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, and Oklahoma City Thunder. The Lakers are not anywhere near that tier, and would not have gotten there even if Howard had been convinced to stay with them.
Kobe, though still amazing offensively, is 34 and plays little defense. The Lakers' offense may look good, with Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and Bryant, but even if Dwight improves, there is little hope for their defense after the severe problems they had last year. The Lakers now look to 2013-2014 as an off season, in which nearly all of their enormous contracts, like Bryant's, will expire, leaving them a ton of space to sign a free agent like Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. On the bright side, the 2014 draft class is thought to be the most promising one since 2003.
The Lakers might just be able to reemerge after next season, but it will take both a good amount of luck and convincing free agents that they can win in Los Angeles. Howard catches a whole lot of flack for how he carries himself, but the situation he came into with the Lakers was nearly impossible. In Houston, Dwight should get the opportunity he's been looking for to win a championship, and the NBA will be even more fun.