Commentary

Suddenly, Lakers team to beat

By adding Howard, L.A. has again vaulted itself to the top of the contenders list

Updated: August 10, 2012, 8:40 AM ET
By Arash Markazi | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- It's not hard to picture Dwight Howard in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform.

For the better part of the past two years, Lakers fans have superimposed a Lakers jersey on every imaginable image of Howard. Type Howard's name into Google, and you'd think he has played the majority of his career in Los Angeles.

It's not hard to picture Howard living in Los Angeles and enjoying life in Hollywood.

For the better part of this summer, Howard has been spotted around Los Angeles by the paparazzi as much as a Kardashian. He's on the Dodger Stadium video board during the seventh-inning stretch, going for a walk outside his hotel in Beverly Hills and waiting in line with kids for ice cream at Sprinkles. He has been in the city more than any Laker this offseason.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Bynum
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireAndrew Bynum, left, will get his chance to be the main man in Philly, as Dwight Howard comes to L.A., looking to add to the Lakers' tradition at center.

And after Thursday's news that Howard will be traded to the Lakers as early as Friday, it's not hard to picture him winning his first championship in Los Angeles.

Yes, that's right, Miami, there is a new challenger to your throne, and this team has a "Big Four" to trump your "Big Three."

There will be no pep rallies filled with smoke and pyrotechnics when the deal officially goes down. Los Angeles usually saves such bells and whistles for championships, but such a celebration in June is certainly what the Lakers have in mind now with Howard and Steve Nash.

And there will be no proclamations of winning "not six, not seven, not eight" titles, but you have to believe that is what Kobe Bryant is thinking now as he sits next to LeBron James in London and counts his number of championship rings.

The window was supposed to be closed -- or at least closing -- on the Lakers' pursuit of a championship after this past season, and the new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to have locked that window shut for the foreseeable future.

This offseason, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss took a sledgehammer to that window, and now it's wide open. In the process, they might have also made the Lakers the favorites to win the NBA title yet again.

After the disappointment of "basketball reasons" robbing them of Chris Paul, the Lakers somehow got Nash for a package of draft picks and the trade exception they received from the Lamar Odom deal with Dallas. Then they finally found the right mix of teams and players to get Howard from Orlando for Andrew Bynum and a protected draft pick.

If you're keeping track at home, that means the Lakers essentially got Howard and Nash for Bynum, Odom and draft picks, and were able to keep Pau Gasol in the process.

The Lakers have had their fair share of favorable trades in their history, but this combination might top them all.

As great as the star power of Howard and Nash is, keeping Gasol as well as Metta World Peace when all is said and done is what makes the Lakers the team to beat going into next season.

If you thought the combination of an enigmatic and inconsistent Bynum and Gasol was hard to beat, try handling a frontcourt of Howard and Gasol with World Peace freed up to focus on being a defensive pest.

And if you thought the Lakers were a potential contender with Derek Fisher or Ramon Sessions at point guard, try stopping them with Nash running the floor and directing the fast break better than anyone in Los Angeles has since Magic Johnson was running "Showtime."

The Lakers improved at the two positions where Miami is weakest. The Heat listed Joel Anthony as their starting center during the Finals but leaned heavily on Chris Bosh. It was a successful patchwork job that ultimately worked out for them but would be a matchup disaster against the Lakers' frontcourt.

Miami also rode the hot hand of the much-maligned Mario Chalmers at point guard during the Finals and bypassed getting a more experienced veteran at the position this offseason. The Heat's basic philosophy is to surround James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh with as many shooters as possible. It's a solid game plan against most teams that are not rolling out a starting lineup of Nash, Bryant, World Peace, Gasol and Howard.

And for those of you in Oklahoma City, the Lakers are not looking past Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Oklahoma City's five-game dismantling of the Lakers in the playoffs this season on the heels of their being swept out of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks last year was the wake-up call this team needed to realize it could not continue and contend maintaining the status quo.

When Oklahoma City eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs in May, Bryant smiled when he was asked about the Lakers' future. Despite a second straight ouster in the second round and adjusting to a new locker room without two of his closest confidants in Odom and Fisher, Bryant wasn't ready to quietly ride off into the sunset.

"I'm not fading into the shadows," Bryant said. "I'm not going anywhere. We're not going anywhere. It's not like one of those things where the Bulls beat the Pistons and the Pistons disappear forever. I'm not going for that.

"I'm not the most patient of people, and the organization is not extremely patient, either. We want to win and win now. I'm sure we'll figure it out. We always have, and I'm sure we will again."

It was an optimistic outlook that came to fruition Thursday, but not even Bryant could have imagined the Lakers would end up with both Howard and Nash while finding a way to keep Gasol. The Lakers have not only figured it out, they have catapulted themselves back atop the NBA.

It might have seemed unimaginable a couple of months ago, but it's not hard to picture now when you look at the talent on this team.

Arash Markazi

ESPNLosAngeles.com