HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Dwight to Houston and Iggy to Golden State. What a day. So, how much did Friday’s free-agent action shift the balance of power in the Western Conference? Perhaps the biggest shift will be the return of a healthy Russ in Oklahoma City come November.
The West certainly got more top-heavy and more intriguing on a wild day that finally delivered Dwight Howard‘s decision, however awkwardly. The big man is leaving the domineering Kobe Bryant and his rapidly aging Los Angeles Lakers to join The Beard, James Harden, and his young-and-gunning Houston Rockets.
While Howard spent Friday in Aspen, Colo., surely studying the California state tax hit on the $30 million more the incumbent Lakers could pay him, the Golden State Warriors’ aggressive front office was busy selling off expiring contracts to create the cap room needed to reach a rather stunning agreement with Denver free agent Andre Iguodala. It positioned the Warriors perfectly to craft a deal if the desperate Lakers bellied-up seeking a sign-and-trade for Howard while simultaneously strengthening their club for next season if not.
Still, did Dwight to Houston and Iggy to Golden State boost either team to the level of the West champion San Antonio Spurs, to OKC with Russell Westbrook returning or even to the Doc Rivers-coached and Chris Paul-led Los Angeles Clippers?
The West is so stout at the top that while Houston and Golden State began to emerge last season with Harden coming to the Rockets and Steph Curry rising to star status in the playoffs (and both teams will co-chair the NBA’s committee for must-watch teams next season) they might find themselves battling it out for homecourt advantage in the first round. And that’s having not even mentioned the post-Lionel Hollins Memphis Grizzlies now under rookie coach David Joerger returning as a top-five team.
But back to Iguodala and his one-year stopover in Denver. If there is a power shift in the West it’s the potential for a Nuggets avalanche down the standings to open a spot in the top four. Denver finished the season as the No. 3 seed, but since Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL in early April it’s been a steady stream of body blows. Denver lost to Golden State in the first round. Coach of the Year George Karl was fired and executive of the year Masai Ujiri left to run the Toronto Raptors. Now Iguodala is gone and Denver might be on the playoff bubble.
As for the Lakers, it’s disingenuous to talk about the loss of Howard as creating a major power shift within the conference. L.A. hasn’t escaped the second round in three years and with Howard last season it squeaked into the playoffs in the final days of the season as the seventh seed. Kobe Bryant hopes to be back for the start of the 2013-14 season, but there’s no guarantee as he recovers from a torn Achilles tendon.
With a roster badly in need of patching all over, might the Lakers, who — ready for this? — apparently chose a future with Mike D’Antoni over the 27-year-old Howard, be the most likely candidate to fall out of the top eight and open a playoff path for a lottery team such as the loaded — and presumably healthy — Minnesota Timberwolves?
Huh, the Timberwolves passing over the Lakers? Now that would be a power shift.