The Lakers have added center Dwight Howard (12) and point guard Steve Nash… (AP, Getty and LAT images )
The stunning trade that brought Dwight Howard to the Lakers this week did more than bolster the team's chances for a championship next season — it arguably transformed Los Angeles into the epicenter of professional basketball.
As the NBA's preeminent big man, Howard joins a star-studded lineup that already includes future Hall of Fame guards Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash as well as forward Pau Gasol.
The 6-foot-11 All-Star center known as "Superman" also will share Staples Center with two of the league's brightest young faces, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin of the Clippers.
"This is the 'Ocean's Eleven' version of the NBA," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "If you put an ensemble cast of superstars together, that will draw a lot of interest."
Certainly, players from other cities are attracted to Los Angeles, a major market with crossover endorsement and entertainment possibilities. But the recent accumulation of talent marks a decision by both franchises to be aggressive — and spend millions upon millions — to build contenders.
The Clippers had ranked near the middle of the NBA in player salaries, but recently awarded Griffin with a five-year $95-million extension and will have to pay up to $108 million to keep Paul. The Lakers, with the league's highest payroll by a substantial margin, will spend more than $66 million this season just on Bryant, Howard and Gasol. That figure would have ranked eighth among the NBA's 30 teams last season.
"It's more than a great place to play, it's great organization," said Jeff Van Gundy, a former NBA coach who is an ESPN analyst. "When you have leadership, you get the right players."
Los Angeles fans have not had the chance to root for so many big names since the "Showtime" era in the 1980s when Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy led the Lakers to a string of titles.
But, in those days, there was only one show in town.
"It's the norm for the Lakers to have Hall of Fame-type talent," Van Gundy said. "For the Clippers, it's certainly something new."
After years of missteps, the Clippers seem to have found new resolve. By outdueling the Lakers to trade for Paul last season, then signing Griffin to an extension, they threatened to eclipse their next-door neighbors.
This summer, they even traded for former Lakers favorite Lamar Odom.
As Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said: "L.A. fans should be excited about basketball in this town."
But the Lakers have responded with Jim Buss, the Lakers executive vice president of player personnel, striving to continue the legacy established by his father, owner Jerry Buss.
With the additions of Nash and Howard, Jim Buss and General Manager Mitch Kupchak have put a declining franchise back in the spotlight.
"That's big news. That's huge," Gasol said of the Howard deal, speaking to reporters after helping Spain defeat Russia in a semifinal game at the 2012 London Olympics. "It puts us in position to be a powerful team."
Fans and the media had long speculated about where the preternaturally strong, agile Howard might end up. Teams were eager to add one of the best defenders and rebounders in the game.
New rumors arose each week, and Howard seemed to change his mind about where he wanted to go — or whether he wanted to remain with the Orlando Magic — just as often.
It should be no surprise that he landed with the Lakers.
In the franchise's early days, back in Minneapolis in the late 1940s, the roster featured the famed George Mikan at center. Ever since, the Lakers have made sure to fill the post with big names.
The tradition continued with Wilt Chamberlain, who came west from Philadelphia in a 1968 trade. In 1975, the team acquired Abdul-Jabbar from Milwaukee and, in 1996, signed free agentShaquille O'Neal, who — like Howard — had begun his career in Orlando.
All three of those deals eventually resulted in NBA championships.
But building the team around a celebrated center has meant more than victories on the court. It has helped fill seats in a market where consumers have wide-ranging options when it comes to spending their entertainment dollars.
A market where basketball fans were spoiled by the success of the '80s, when the Lakers won five championships.
"'Showtime' created this monster," Swangard said. "The Lakers have been forced to be aggressive to keep their marquee full of good names."
Howard arrives with baggage, some fans tired of his indecision and all those rumors. He might need to polish his image.
Winning a championship would help. It certainly smoothed over the turbulence that marked LeBron James' switch from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat.