By Jan Hubbard
A look at the NBA standings three years ago shows how much has changed since the 2009-10 season.
At the end of that season, the Western Conference looked like this:
1. Lakers, 57-25
2. Mavericks, 55-27
3. Suns, 54-28
When I looked at the standings last Sunday, their records had them ranked 11th, 12th and 14th, respectively, in the conference and they were a combined 27 games under .500.
The Suns and Mavericks have excuses – loss of key players to free agency or trades.
The Lakers, meanwhile, have become a delightful soap opera – which is good and bad news for those who follow them. They are delightful because they are fun to read about but maddening to their fans.
Who could have thought that after acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash and adding them to a team with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol that the Lakers would struggle so badly? Right now, they have injury problems with Howard, Gasol and Jordan Hill sidelined, which has led to Robert Sacre, a player from the D-League, starting.
Nash also missed the first 23 games of the season with an injury. And, of course, who can forget that the Lakers fired their head coach four games into the season? So there have been obstacles to overcome – many of them self-inflicted.
The Lakers’ struggles could be good news for the Mavericks – not because of any championship hopes this season, but because of what might happen in the offseason.
Dallas owner Mark Cuban made a calculated gamble after winning the 2011 title that he would not tie himself to the championship roster – which clearly overachieved – and would put the team in position to sign a premium free agent.
That has yet to happen, but with Howard seemingly unhappy in Los Angeles, there could be hope for the Mavericks to bring him to Dallas. It would be folly to predict what Howard might do at the end of the season because he has changed his mind in the past almost as often as he has dunked.
But it seems possible that the Lakers – one of the two great franchises in NBA history – could lose him for nothing. Howard has an angry rivalry with Shaquille O’Neal, who has never missed an opportunity to point out that Howard has spent a career imitating him. O’Neal was Superman first, played at Orlando first and went to the Lakers first. Howard was all three after Shaq.
The Lakers gambled that Howard would sign a long term contract with them and maybe he will. But it would hardly be surprising if Howard simply decided to do something weird – is that redundant? – and signed somewhere else? Maybe Dallas?
That would be an uncommon blow to the Lakers.
There has been some speculation that since the chemistry isn’t that great, the Lakers might be willing to trade Howard to, say, the Nets before the trade deadline.
That would be very unLakerlike. When you’ve won 16 championships and you have talent that should compete for a title, you think of now.
Despite their problems, it’s difficult to imagine the Lakers not making the playoffs. And if something, well, magical happens, they certainly would be threats to win a title. It feels a little stupid writing that with their current problems but, still, there is no denying their talent.
But no matter what happens, Howard could still decide to leave Los Angeles. And you can be sure if that became reality, Cuban would be preaching the merits of Dallas – playing on a team with a champion like Dirk Nowitzki, eventually becoming the senior Maverick when Dirk leaves, and no longer having to follow in Shaq’s footsteps.
It could be a great situation for Howard, but, of course, even better for the Mavericks. And the nice thing for the franchise right now is that it’s not a long shot. It’s far from a certainty, obviously, but if the Lakers continue to be in disarray, Dallas will have to look pretty inviting to Dwight Howard.