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NBA PREVIEW : ON THE NBA

Stellar market

Lakers have the best starting lineup in the league. Clippers' deep bench backs up two All-Stars. Welcome to NBA headquarters.

October 28, 2012|BEN BOLCH
  • Dwight Howard is the latest in a long line of larger-than-life Lakers centers.
Dwight Howard is the latest in a long line of larger-than-life Lakers centers. (Harry How / Getty Images )

Looks like L.A. is going to need a few more paparazzi.

You can't stroll Venice Beach or sit down to bacon-wrapped monkfish at Spago without spotting a superstar Laker or Clipper in the nation's new basketball capital.

Here comes Dwight Howard, the latest in a long line of larger-than-life Lakers centers.

There goes Steve Nash, the savviest point guard of his generation.

And isn't that Kobe Bryant, the onetime star of stars who is now just one of the guys?

Add the Lakers' Pau Gasol and the Clippers' Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and you have six All-Stars, three slam dunk contest champions and two most valuable players who call Staples Center home.

"L.A. is the basketball mecca of the world," said Shaquille O'Neal, the skyscraping center who teamed with Bryant to win three NBA titles with the Lakers from 2000 to 2002.

Howard and Nash were the latest luminaries to complete the migration to the hoops holy land. Their arrival this summer gave the Lakers inarguably the best starting lineup in the league and made them a trendy pick to win a 17th championship.

Maybe it's no coincidence that Lakers small forward Metta World Peace, suddenly surrounded by four probable Hall of Famers, is launching a T-shirt line with a rock star theme.

"Because I feel like a rock star," World Peace explained.

No less an authority on Lakers legends than Magic Johnson compared fan fervor for the current team to what he experienced during Showtime in the 1980s.

"I tell you what, the buzz is just as strong, the anticipation for the season just as strong as when I played," Johnson said. "And it's not just L.A., it's around the world. Everybody really is waiting to see what this team is going to do. So I think they may have us because social media things are so much bigger today than when I played."

Meanwhile, the Clippers' title hopes are trending beyond their Playa Vista headquarters, something unimaginable only two years ago.

The team that advanced to the Western Conference semifinals last season for only the second time in franchise history surrounded its core with what might be the best bench in the NBA.

Lamar Odom, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill and Matt Barnes could start for a host of teams.

They will help back up Paul and Griffin, who spent the summer working toward what they hope will be the longest playoff push in Clippers history.

Griffin, determined to show that he can do more than leap over Kia Optimas in a single bound, improved his jump shot and his defense.

Paul didn't do much besides win an Olympic gold medal alongside Bryant and pose for the cover of GQ. The point guard stoked the teams' hallway rivalry in his interview with the fashion magazine, implying he was glad NBA Commissioner David Stern yanked him back from the Lakers in a proposed trade last year because he really wanted to play for the Clippers.

"They had the better pieces," Paul told the magazine, "and winning with the Clippers would be legendary."

Winning with the Lakers would be equally thrilling for Howard and Nash, who have zero titles between them.

You have to like their chances when you consider the Lakers possess the league's best closer in Bryant, its most versatile big man in Gasol, its top center in Howard and its best shooter in Nash.

Of course, having so much talent also comes with a flip side. Kurt Rambis experienced it in the 1980s playing on Lakers teams that included Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.

"We made it all the way to the Finals and lost and the next day in the paper there was talk about breaking up the team, Kareem is too old, I can't shoot," Rambis recalled. "And it's probably going to happen with this team too. If they don't win the NBA Finals, it's going to seem like a failure to some people."

At 38, Nash has three more chances to win a title because that's the number of seasons in what figures to be his final contract.

"I definitely could live with myself if it never happened," Nash said, "but I would also be the life of the party if we won."

Howard wants to follow the flight path of another Superman, only with a stiffer tail wind.

O'Neal came west from Orlando in 1996 and needed four years to win his first championship with the Lakers.

Howard undoubtedly would prefer to get it done in his first season, before deciding if he'll come back for a second. It helps that everywhere he looks, there is another superhero ready to aid his quest.

"Dwight Howard is going to be much better with a Kobe Bryant and a Pau Gasol," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said. "When you're a great player, the more great players you play with the easier the game becomes."

It's getting crowded on the red carpet in the new basketball metropolis.

Get your cameras ready. The Lakers and Clippers are coming.

--

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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