How Howard impacts the West

It just doesn’t seem possible that one team can continue to hit the jackpot as often as the Los Angeles Lakers. From Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal to Pau Gasol, there might not be a franchise in North American pro sports that has had more success prying prime assets from their competitors.

Add Hall of Fame-bound center Dwight Howard to the list following the recent completion of the four-team deal that delivered him from Orlando to Hollywood for a pu-pu platter of journeymen and mediocre draft picks. If most of L.A.’s other exchanges were made for pennies on the dollar, this was borderline theft. And now the Spurs and Oklahoma City, who battled for last year’s Western Conference title, will have to deal with the results.

It’s hardly a lock that the Lakers, who also pried the still-productive Steve Nash away from Phoenix, have vaulted past both. Look at their own spotty history when it comes to building teams around aging superstars.

The West/Baylor/Chamberlain triumvirate of the late 60s and early 70s never lived up to expectations. Indeed, it wasn’t until Baylor was forced to retire that the Lakers finally won their first title in 1972. Then there were the ill-fated additions of Gary Payton and Karl Malone in 2004, with the former never meshing with Phil Jackson’s triangle offense and the latter breaking down in the midst of a pounding from Detroit in the Finals.

With Kobe Bryant, Gasol and Nash all on the wrong side of 30, and a glaring lack of depth, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if L.A.’s latest super team fell short as well. But, with such a top-heavy collection of talent, the Lakers should present a massive challenge to their fellow contenders.

San Antonio: Even more than the Lakers and Thunder, the Spurs’ biggest enemy, as always, is time. Retirement looms on the near horizon for Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, at which point they’ll finally be forced to embark on the rebuilding job management has done so well to stave off in recent years. The additions of Nash and especially Howard should only accelerate that process, with both addressing major holes for the Lakers — namely, playmaking, outside shooting, consistent interior defense and athleticism.

Oklahoma City: If any team can feel good about how it matches up with the Lakers, it’s the Thunder. They boast one of the top interior defensive tandems in the league in Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. And with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden all still under the age of 25, the Thunder should only get better, presenting a stark contrast to L.A.’s potent but graying lineup. Westbrook is likely already salivating at the prospect of attacking Nash off the dribble, and Bryant is no longer capable of matching buckets with Durant.

So, while it’s anything but a given that the Lakers will be able to beat either team on its quest to reclaim the Western Conference crown, the chase has obviously gotten much, much more interesting.

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