No pressure, guys.
It is little secret that Williams, the unrestricted free agent point guard, and Howard, the sort-of-not-totally-unavailable center, want to play together. Reports of their planned union have circulated for some time, and if Howard had not said he will opt in for the final year of his contract with the Orlando Magic, his team-up with Williams might already be in the works this offseason.
With Williams reportedly narrowing his desired destinations to Brooklyn and Dallas, and Howard stuck in Florida for another year (maybe), the odds of the two players coming together, particularly in the East, seem slim. Otis Smith, the Magic's former general manager, repeatedly rebuffed the Nets' best offer of Brook Lopez and two first-round draft picks, and new executive Rob Hennigan's long-term plan is impossible to know right now.
The Nets complicated matters as well, curiously trading their first-round pick in this year's draft (one that would have gone to Orlando in a theoretical Howard trade) for Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline. Wallace is a fine player, but the Nets would have been more attractive to would-be free agents like Howard and Williams if those stars could look forward to playing the next five years with the likes of Dion Waiters or Jeremy Lamb, rather than one year with the 29-year-old Wallace.
Admitting all that up front, this is not a plea for Williams or Howard to make any decision other than the one that is best for each of them. But while watching the Miami Heat run to their first championship of the LeBron James era, it became clear that the only realistic obstacle to the Heat's extended dominance over the East is for Howard and Williams to team up on this side of the map.
We know this because a team anchored at center and point guard gave the Heat their toughest test in the playoffs. Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo exposed the Heat's two biggest weaknesses, nearly overcoming a number of legendary performances by James and the unsightly struggles of Paul Pierce in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Much was made of Rondo's improved shooting in the playoffs, when he shot more than 44 percent from midrange and shot nearly 70 percent from the free throw line. For Williams, 45 percent from midrange is the baseline. And as impressive as Garnett was in the playoffs, his 19.2 points and 10.3 rebounds per game drooped significantly below Howard's postseason numbers of 27 points and 15.5 rebounds per game, along with defense that is every bit as good as Garnett's.
This is not to get into a debate about which team's point guard-center combo is better. The point is, the Celtics illustrated a way the Heat possibly, maybe, might be beat. A team with a dominant point guard and center remains the most likely opponent to give Miami trouble, and Williams and Howard would be Rondo and Garnett on figurative steroids.
The chances of such a pairing coming together looked strong to quite strong just a few months ago, but now that possibility seems less likely, at least in Brooklyn. Williams' hometown Mavericks are positioned to have plenty of salary cap space, an established star in Dirk Nowitzki and an owner whose ultimate goal is winning over cost control. The odds look much better for Howard and Williams bugging Kevin Durant and the Thunder, instead of the Heat.
The Heat's denigrators cannot count on Derrick Rose and the Bulls, sadly, now that Rose and Joakim Noah could miss most of the 2012-13 season and will need much more time that that to recover fully from offseason surgeries. The Celtics could be back for another run, but face so many unknowns, starting with contracts and health. The Pacers are young and promising but have payroll decisions to make this offseason. The Knicks and Hawks appear to be star-studded first-round fodder for the foreseeable future.
The West looks likely to grow even tougher. The Thunder should only get better. The Lakers will never truly be bad, and the Spurs and Mavericks will always be there. The Timberwolves, Jazz and Clippers took huge leaps forward last season, and will be tough early-round foes even if they never rise to the level of contenders. The well-rested Heat would feast on such an assortment of weary Western Conference survivors in the Finals year after year, much like the Bulls did at the end of Michael Jordan's run.
Another Eastern power, and more importantly an Eastern power constructed in the right way, might be the only way to stave off a long run of dominance by the Heat.
Photos via AP, Facebook/Deron Williams