Now that Dwight Howard’s move to Los Angeles has set up a likely Lakers-Heat Final, the rest of the league is trying to figure out whether it is even worth the effort to play out the season.
The four-team trade that sent Howard to the Lakers from Orlando basically made the rich (Lakers) richer in competitive terms. But there is a price to pay, in terms of luxury tax — the Lakers are going to be at least $50 million over the $74 million salary cap, based on current contract values.
The deal certainly strengthens the Western Conference while altering the balance of power in the East. The Lakers now will be favored to overtake Oklahoma City in the West, but the Thunder have improved after their Finals experience.
In the East, Orlando had become a nonfactor for the first time since the 2006-07 season. And Philadelphia, which acquired Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson, could be in a position to make a run.
The Celtics figure they could have another chance to overtake the Heat, after coming close in last season’s playoffs. In fact, if not for a crucial non-call in overtime of Game 2, Rajon Rondo could have scored more than 44 points and the Celtics might have gone on to wrap up the series in five games.
The Heat will remain heavy favorites in the East, but the pecking order of challengers could be altered. The presence of Bynum changes the equation for the Sixers, who came within a game of eliminating the Celtics in the second round.
The Celtics had enough trouble dealing with Lavoy Allen in the Philadelphia series, and Bynum will make Boston’s task an even taller order. At least on paper.
Once the games begin, the Sixers will have to adjust to the loss of Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala (Denver), and Lou Williams (Atlanta). Iguodala was the team’s most dependable and durable performer — a dynamic, unpredictable scorer and strong defender. He also upped the competitive level of the Sixers and filled a leadership role.
Richardson, acquired from Orlando, and Nick Young add experience and perimeter shooting. But the Sixers are clearly hoping to build around Bynum. This is a young team and it could grow alongside Bynum, should he commit to a long-term contract. As part of the deal, the Sixers will have Bynum’s “Larry Bird rights,” meaning they can offer a five-year, $100 million contract, according to published reports. Other teams would be limited to a four-year, $80 million offer.
But there are questions about Bynum, 24, who has had surgery on both knees and has missed 166 games in his seven-year career. Also, there is a chance Bynum might not even want to play for Philadelphia.
While the trade was taking form last week, Bynum’s agent, David Lee, sent out a warning that whoever was interested should first check to see whether Bynum was interested in them. Judging by the comments of Sixers coach Doug Collins, who is doing broadcast work for the Olympics in London, nobody had persuaded Bynum that his future is in Philadelphia, at least not initially.
Collins worked wonders with the Sixers last season, getting the most out of an inexperienced team. But after a fast start, Collins had to adjust his coaching style, and he pushed the right buttons. Now, Collins will have to start over, and expectations will be much more difficult to fulfill.
Here is a look at some of the other Eastern Conference contenders’ offseason progress:
■ Atlanta: The Hawks were willing to reload in the backcourt, losing Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams in trades. Devin Harris and Lou Williams have been added to complement Jeff Teague at guard. Josh Smith displayed his strengths (many) and weaknesses (inconsistency) in the playoffs. But if Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia recover from injury, the frontcourt will be a handful.
■ Chicago: Everything depends on Derrick Rose’s recovery from knee surgery. During the regular season, the Bulls were able to compensate for Rose’s absence, but not in the playoffs. The Bulls’ fate might also depend on the status of coach Tom Thibodeau, who had not signed a contract extension as of last week.
■ Indiana: The Pacers beat the Celtics to free agent David West last season, but they were not good enough to get past the second round of the playoffs. The Pacers did push the Heat, though, and could be a factor again this season. If so, it will be up to guard D.J. Augustin, a free agent signing, to point the way.
■ Miami: Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis add dimensions the Heat lacked last season.
■ New York: The Knicks must believe they have a chance to contend right away, since they added Marcus Camby, 38, Jason Kidd, 39, and Argentinian point guard Pablo Prigioni, 35.