Devastator, a giant robot comprised of five smaller ones, was one of the most fearsome villains in the original Transformers. The Constructicons weren’t dangerous by themselves, but they were practically unstoppable when transformed into parts of a much bigger whole. The same can happen in basketball, where five players whose games complement each other can defeat teams with far more individual talent.
In the 2011 NBA Finals, the Dallas Mavericks, with one All-NBA player, defeated the combined star power of the Miami Heat. Dallas didn’t have a two-way player as dominant as LeBron James; instead, Dirk Nowitzki played at an MVP-level on offense and Tyson Chandler played at an MVP-level on defense. And while the rest of their core (Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd) was aging fast, they perfectly complemented their two-headed 7’0 Voltron.
Over the last two years, Miami’s playoff record is 23-7 with all three of their stars in the starting lineup. They’re 21-3 against anyone besides Dallas. But with Chandler now in New York, the new-look Los Angeles Lakers are the team best equipped to copy the Mavericks formula. The Heat were beaten by a group better than the sum of their parts; what happens when those parts are Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard?
Nash (38), Kobe (34), Gasol (32) and Metta World Peace (33) are all on the downside of their careers, but what they’ve lost in terms of foot-speed can be minimized by the presence of a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. At the other end of their floor, their ability to pass and shoot will space the floor and create more easy shots for Howard than he ever saw with Orlando.
At 6’11, 265, Howard is the most dominant defensive player of his generation. He has the strength to defend the low block, the athleticism to contest shots above the rim and the quickness to hedge and recover on the pick-and-roll. Orlando was a perennial top-3 defense with him on the floor, despite playing a roster of defensive non-entities -- Hedo Turkoglu, Vince Carter, Jameer Nelson, Ryan Anderson -- in front of him.
At 6’3, 180, Nash is the mirror opposite, a point guard who dominates with skill instead of athleticism. Howard has always struggled with his free-throw shooting, but Nash is one of the all-time great shooters. A season of 50% field goal shooting / 40% three-point shooting / 90% foul shooting is considered the Holy Grail of shooting; Nash has almost averaged that over his entire career (49/41/90).
With Phoenix, Nash became an MVP by playing the pick-and-roll with Amar'e Stoudemire. Howard isn’t as good of a shooter as Stoudemire, but he’s even bigger and more athletic. There isn’t anyone in the world who is going to stop a rolling Howard at the front of the rim. That combination alone will be absolutely lethal to defend.
Nor will Nash be the only player whose assist totals rise playing next to Howard. Gasol, one of the best passing big men in the NBA, will have the chance to throw alley-oops and play high/low with the league’s most athletic center. At 7’0, 250, he can see over a defense, while his ability to shoot from 15+ feet will space the floor for Howard and Nash. He’s most effective playing as a center, but he will be able to adjust his game to becoming more of a stretch-4 with Howard on the floor.
All this talent should lift much of the offensive burden Kobe has carried over the last few years, as he can pace himself and play a role similar to the one he had on Team USA this year. With a big man commanding defensive attention at the rim and two players who can pass and shoot as well as Nash and Gasol, Kobe could become more of a finisher than a shot-creator. He may receive more open three-pointers in 2012 than he has in his entire career.
The big question will be at the small forward position, where none of their returning players (World Peace and Devin Ebanks) could consistently knock down three-point shots last year. The Mavericks had a similar problem in 2011, but Marion’s ability to cut to the rim and finish with an unconventional floater allowed him to exploit the lack of defensive attention he received off the ball.
The Lakers' bench has been their undoing in recent years, but two of their more low-profile acquisitions (Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks) will be perfect fits with a team that can afford to sacrifice perimeter defense for shooting. Jordan Hill, an athletic former lottery pick at 6’10, 235, is an excellent backup center. Steve Blake, meanwhile, can survive as a second-unit guard.
Howard’s defensive ability allows the Lakers to emphasize offense at the other four positions on the floor, and the Lakers will have waves of offensive-minded players who will thrive with Howard anchoring. As Dallas proved in 2011, passing and shooting are the last skills a great player loses, and the players the Lakers will put around Howard have combined for 29 All-Star appearances in their career.
Of course, this all depends on the health of Howard’s back, which forced him to miss the end of the 11-12 season to undergo surgery. However, it seems unlikely the Lakers would trade a player as talented as Andrew Bynum if their team doctors hadn’t gone through Howard’s medical charts with a fine-toothed comb. With so many older players, health will be a huge concern for the Lakers, but that’s a “known unknown” for now.
Looming down the road are potential playoffs showdowns with the NBA’s best scorer (Kevin Durant) as well as its best all-around player in LeBron. No one can do everything -- passing, shooting, scoring, rebounding and defense -- as well as LeBron, but Los Angeles has players who can match him in each category. To return to the analogy, even Optimus Prime struggled to do much to stop the assembled power of Devastator.