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Polarizing (07/20)

July 20, 2012
Trade Scenario
Big Man Swap

by Bradford Doolittle

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We've heard this song before: Dwight Howard may be on his way out of Orlando. The tenor of the speculation seems to shift by the hour, but right now we think we know this: The foundation of the proposed deal between the Lakers, Cavaliers and Magic would place Howard in Los Angeles and Bynum in Cleveland.

Obviously if a trade actually goes through, there will be many more facets to this megadeal, perhaps even another team. The Magic will seize the chance to offload some of its bad payroll burden while stocking up on franchise-building assets for the future. We don't know what will become of others in possible limbo, like Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, Glen Davis and Anderson Varejao. Nevertheless, it's worth looking at his potential move based just on the two big men because it shows just how seismic of a shift will occur in the NBA the day Howard is finally dealt.

Orlando Magic

My projections had Orlando starting the free-agent period with a forecast of 47.7 wins. That's with Howard and Ryan Anderson still on hand, plus rookie Andrew Nicholson providing a boost. (My system really likes the recently-drafted big from St. Bonaventure.) That projection actually nudged up to 49.6 wins when Ray Allen left the Celtics, putting the Magic second in the East.

Then Anderson left, and the Magic tumbled to fifth. As other teams have added pieces while Orlando tries to resolve its Howard dilemma, the numbers have gradually waned. Though yesterday's transactions, I've got the Magic at 43.5 wins, seventh in the conference. By removing Howard from the equation and not replacing him with anyone, the Magic drop to 24.1 wins, better than only Charlotte in the league pecking order. Before removing any of the remaining veterans from it roster, Orlando is already positioned for a high lottery pick.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland gets the biggest boost in this scenario. I've had the Cavaliers between 34 and 37 wins for most of the offseason. Since I keep free agents attached to their most recent squads until which time they actually depart for another team, Antawn Jamison has been part of that projection. Once he agreed to a deal with the Lakers, the Cavs dropped to a 28.8 win projection, 14th in the East. That's where they stand at the moment.

Adding Bynum changes things in a profound way. Between his production and the redistribution of minutes, Cleveland jumps all the way to 40.5 wins and into a virtual three-way tie for the 7 to 9 seeds in the East with the Nets and Bucks. Four of Cleveland's top five performers would likely be first- or second-year players, with Kyrie Irving leading a group that would include Tyler Zeller, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson. Bynum would be the grand old man at 25. It's a good, young mix with lots of room to grow.

Unfortunately, as Bynum's agent David Lee pointed out last night, no one has apparently run this scenario by Bynum yet. Unlike the Rockets, who are banking their pursuit on their ability to convince Howard to stay, or the Lakers, who are perhaps the league's ultimate destination franchise, it's imperative that Cleveland get some assurances. If they land Bynum, they can offer him more years and more dollars than any other team next summer. But how will a kid that grew up in New Jersey and has spend his subsequent life with the league's glamour franchise adjust to the Midwest? That's impossible to say, but a few pick-and-rolls with Irving might make life next to Lake Erie a lot more palatable.

Los Angeles Lakers

Speaking of that glamour franchise, the Lakers' situation is the most interesting of all. After all, it wasn't that long ago that I was writing about how it was Bynum, not Howard, who was the league's top center in the 2011-12 season. Howard is the bigger star to be sure, but he's coming off of back surgery and seems to become increasingly distracted by the trappings of celebrity with each passing season. How will going to Los Angeles affect that?

That's another imponderable question. Less elusive is this: How much will Howard really add to the Lakers' bottom line? It's not a matter of dollars, but wins. Last season aside, Bynum is arguably the second-best center in the NBA. He's also nearly two years younger and is a better offensive player, or at least he seems to have become that. Last season may have been a fluke in that regard. In any event, it's fair to say that Bynum is the more skilled offensive player.

Howard is better on defense. His rebound rates are higher and he's a more dominant post defender. He and Bynum are in virtual dead heat in career block percentage, but with Bynum's knee history and Howards' back, it's tough to say how that category is going to look in coming seasons. This is all to say that the difference between the two isn't as great as you might think, especially when you consider that the dollars are irrelevant. Both are headed for free agency, or an extension, and if Roy Hibbert is worth max dollars, you can be sure that both of these guys are going to get the same.

The Lakers' part in the Howard scenario is so interesting because you can argue that no team is in less need of the Orlando center. Nevertheless, when I plug Howard into the Lakers' rotation in place of Bynum, an amazing thing happens. The Lakers' forecast was at 42.9 wins at the outset of free agency, seventh in the West. The acquisition of Steve Nash left them at 49.4 win through Tuesday, up to fourth. They had been as high as second. Then they added Antawn Jamison to the bench mix -- a move I hate in a subjective sense -- but that signing boosted the Lakers to 52.7 wins and a third-place conference ranking.

When I swap Bynum for Howard, the Lakers jump to 60.0 projected wins and actually surpass the Thunder for the No. 1 forecast in the Western Conference. Only the Miami Heat (63.5 wins) project to be better. This is why the Lakers are going so hard after Howard.

Andrew vs. Dwight

Why does Howard project so much better than Bynum? Mostly because he's been better for longer and he's been healthier. Bynum had never cracked 2,000 minutes in a season until last season. Even with his back trouble last year, Howard just 42 fewer minutes than Bynum last season. He's played over, 2,600 in every other season and has been over 3,000 on three different occasions. Not only has Howard been better, but he's been better for many more minutes, giving his forecast the degree of certainty that you want in such a major investment. Any team that latches onto Bynum for the long term will have the kind of concerns the Knicks should have had when they signed Amar'e Stoudemire to a max deal a couple of years ago.

The upshot of this of course is that just maybe, Bynum is hitting a career peak in which he will remain healthy and vibrant for the next half-decade. If he's able to stay on the court for 2,600 or more minutes, then suddenly the gap between him and Howard narrows. At 2,600 minutes, the Cavaliers' forecast improves to about 43 wins. Of course, putting Howard on the Cavs jump them to 48 victories. You can see the difference.

The Lakers' forecast up till now has carried with it concerns of on-court fit. How will a Kobe Bryant-Nash backcourt work? However, a Nash-Howard pairing carries no such caveat. Nash is one of the league's all-time great pick-and-roll playmakers and Howard is the most devastating pick-and-roll finisher in the NBA. If you could run one play involving any two players in the league, you'd pick Howard setting a high screen for Nash. Bynum is more of a pure back-to-the-basket kind of center who has never been asked to run that much pick-and-roll. It doesn't mean he can't do it, but it's unlikely he'd do it nearly as well as Howard.

So while the Lakers seem to be well situated at center, it's easy to understand why they may be so doggedly in pursuit of Howard. But it's also easy to understand why the Cavs would be willing to roll the dice on Bynum.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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