LOS ANGELES -- In the span of about one hour Wednesday afternoon, Magic general manager Rob Hennigan held a press conference at Amway Arena and announced that trade talks for Dwight Howard had stalled, while Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak held a press conference at his team's training facility and introduced Steve Nash. The events didn't seem to have anything to do with each other -- Hennigan had been negotiating mainly with the Nets, and Kupchak never said a word about the Magic -- but Howard hung over the purple-and-gold practice court like a 6-11 specter.
After the Nash introduction, Kupchak retreated from the stage and reflected on the unusual job description of a NBA general manager, a position defined by transformative trades that rarely come to fruition. "If you can make one every five to 10 years, you have to look at your organization and say you're very lucky," Kupchak said. Four years ago, he made the deal for Pau Gasol, and two championships followed. Last year, he made the deal for Chris Paul, and it was vetoed. He considers Nash another one of those transformative acquisitions. "Can we do it again?" he asked. "I'm not really sure that's possible." He cited a narrow time frame this summer and restrictions under the new collective bargaining agreement, sounding daunted but not defeated. "We'll continue to try," he said.
Howard has made it clear he would prefer to play for the Nets than the Lakers, but after the Nets finalized their contract with center Brook Lopez, his first choice is gone. As Kupchak extolled Nash, for accepting less money to join the Lakers, he took the opportunity to send what sounded like a gentle recruiting pitch. "We have a very attractive franchise in a very attractive city," Kupchak said. "I'm not going to say players don't love playing for the Lakers and living in Los Angeles."
The Lakers have become more desirable with Nash, their best point guard since Magic Johnson, and perhaps their most notable three-point shooting threat since Robert Horry. The Lakers believe Nash will jump-start the offense, space the floor, preserve Kobe Bryant and invigorate Pau Gasol. Bryant will happily defer ball-handling duties to Nash, in the interest of extending his career. Gasol will thrive in a system that emphasizes passing. The biggest obstacle in the transition will be center Andrew Bynum, whose skills are not as suited to the pick-and-roll, a Nash specialty.
Last season, Bynum became what he always wanted, the second option behind Bryant. Still, he was disgruntled at times, and the Lakers must wonder how he will respond if he slides back down the offensive hierarchy. Bynum has softer hands than Howard and more polished post moves, while Howard is a superior defender and more consistent performer. You might be able to argue that Bynum has more potential if healthy, but it's hard to claim he is a better fit on a team with Nash, Bryant and Gasol. Acquiring Nash is deeply gratifying for the Lakers, who put the Paul veto behind them and the Lamar Odom trade exception to excellent use. But it does not diminish the hunger for Howard.
Kupchak acknowledged that he is hamstrung in any future trades by the Lakers lack of draft picks, declining to mention the other obvious logistical hurdles in a Howard-Bynum swap: Howard's reluctance to sign a long-term contract with the Lakers and Bynum's reported reluctance to sign one with the Magic, in addition to pre-existing injuries. "It's just not realistic," Kupchak said of another transformative deal. Even if he is correct and the Lakers are unable to land Howard, they will still head to training camp with four potential headliners, a tantalizing yet tricky proposition.
"I don't discredit what a challenge that's going to be but I think it will also be a worthwhile and rewarding challenge," Nash said. "It's an exciting project to take on....We have a lot of guys on the team that will score and make plays on their own accord. The power of those pieces grows exponentially when you use them in concert and allow the ball to do a lot of the work. Everyone has to be unselfish and willing to work for the greater good but I don't think that's a problem." Nash has never played with an elite, back-to-the-basket center. The Lakers arguably have two of them.
During the press conference, Nash took questions in both English and Spanish, once referring to Lakers head coach Mike Brown as "buenisimo hombre." Brown piped up in the audience: "What does that mean? What's he saying about me?" The question for the Lakers is not whether Brown is a good man but whether he is a good enough coach to maximize Nash's speed on offense while camouflaging his shortcomings on defense. Nash became sold on this project, as he terms it, during a phone call with Bryant in which the Lakers star explained how easily they could complement each other.
The call was arranged by Kupchak. "That was a risk," he said. He knows that Bryant can scare away players. According to reports, he scared away Howard, and the Lakers have been trying to make amends ever since. "That's always the chance you take with Kobe," Kupchak said, with a quick wink.
Nash did not flinch, and as a result, the Lakers will enter next season with an iron backcourt. The state of their front line, however, remains flexible.