LONDON -- The Los Angeles Lakers know their formula is tried and true. No matter which style of play is in vogue, no matter which ball handlers and shooters are being celebrated at the moment, when they see a great big man who can sustain the club's greatness into another generation, they make him a Laker. They did it in the summer of 1968 when they traded for Wilt. They did it again in June 1975 when they traded four front-line players to get Kareem. Twenty-one years later, on the first day of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, after dumping every salary imaginable to make room for him, the Lakers gave free agent Shaq $121 million, and he ultimately helped them end a championship drought of 12 years.
Once it became apparent that Dwight Howard wasn't going to commit to staying in Orlando, no matter his flirtation with the Nets and the Rockets' interest in him, Howard was more or less destined to wind up with the Lakers. They've been doing this slow dance for a while, the Magic and Lakers. They've talked about Howard-to-the-Lakers deals at various times over the past two-plus seasons. They could have, probably should have, had him all of last season. And in short time, Howard, who has been somewhere between indecisive and utterly clueless, will understand why he's damn lucky to be following George Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, Shaq and, yes, even Andrew Bynum.
Kobe Bryant, as he'd done on his Facebook page earlier, said after Friday night's U.S. Olympic victory over Argentina, that he called Howard and told him, "'Los Angeles is the perfect place'" for him. Clearly what thrilled Bryant the most was being able to acquire Howard and keep Gasol. It was Kobe who called Gasol Thursday night and told him what was about to happen, that he and Howard would be teammates. "The consensus earlier was, 'No way we can get Dwight and still keep Pau,'" Kobe said. "The first thing I did was call Pau and let him know what was going on."
What Kobe understands that Howard presumably will someday is the big picture of what the Lakers mean to Southern California, to the well-being of the NBA. Kobe's Facebook page post said, in part, "The Lakers landed a piece that will hopefully carry the franchise long after I'm gone." That was even more important in that bigger context than something else Kobe said, which showed just how excited he is about the upcoming season. "Locked and loaded to bring back the title," is the phrase Kobe used. Miami and Oklahoma City might be the only teams with resources enough to do something about that.
You can overthink this if you want, but teams with four players who are as great as Bryant, Gasol, Steve Nash and Howard are right now usually play for the championship in the NBA. This isn't the NHL, where a goaltender you never heard of at the start of the playoffs can own the postseason. It's not baseball, where two dominant pitchers on one staff can mow through October. It's not pro football, where teams finish in last place one year, tinker over the winter and spring, then become great the next fall. You can say the Lakers need to be more athletic on the wing. (They do.) You can say they need a capable backup to Nash, preferably one who's big and can play defense against Russell Westbrook. (And they do.) But boy, the Lakers right now have a roster that's going to cause Southern California to hyperventilate and the NBA to go into a third straight season with a magnetic, overarching storyline sure to pull in marginal fans and lather up the regulars.
Is this good for the NBA? Hell yeah, it is. It's great for any league when it has a cornerstone team that plays for keeps every single season. I'd argue that the Lakers matter to Southern California more than any team in the NBA matters to the city in which it plays, save Oklahoma City, whose size of community makes that an entirely different discussion.
If the Howard deal flies in the face of everything the owners sought to secure during last summer's lockout, that's on them. The Lakers do exactly what they should try to do; they try to win. Other franchises should be as conscientious. I'm just glad David Stern's not working as some team's GM this summer; imagine how upset he'd be if he were still running the Hornets that they didn't have a last chance to get Dwight Howard. The Lakers didn't have to take back any hideous contracts to make this deal. Essentially, they turned Bynum into Howard and Steve Nash this offseason. Can't they just give the 2012-13 NBA Executive of the Year Award to Mitch Kupchak now?
It's not as if only the Lakers got better, though. The 76ers got the low-post threat they desperately needed in Bynum, whose presence around the basket should dramatically help all those perimeter players, starting with Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. Andre Iguodala's style is tailor-made for what Denver does. Orlando is getting crushed for getting no star player, not even Bynum, in return for Howard. But Rob Hennigan, Orlando's new GM, is from the OKC school and may want to go about building a team just this way, which is to say with draft picks. We won't be able to fairly judge Orlando's yield for years and years, which is about the same amount of time it'll take for the Magic to be worth watching again.
The Lakers, as always, are in it for now, particularly with Kobe and Nash entering their 17th seasons. It's worth pointing out that none of the previous three big-splash acquisitions the Lakers made (Wilt, Kareem, Shaq) produced championship seasons right off the bat. In fact, all three men were involved in some massively disappointing seasons after joining the Lakers. Wilt, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor blew a 2-0 series lead and lost to the Celtics in the 1969 Finals. Kareem couldn't get the Lakers to the playoffs his first season in Los Angeles and didn't get to the Finals until Magic arrived. And Shaq's teams didn't amount to much of anything until Phil Jackson rode to the rescue.
This time ought to be different, largely because Howard isn't the centerpiece in a way Shaq and Kareem were. The Lakers won't have to depend on Howard, not as a go-to man on the court and certainly not for leadership, two areas Howard's been deficient in up until now. Don't get me wrong: Nash and Howard will be able to play a lethal pick-and-roll game, so will Nash and Gasol, and the mere existence of that threat will prevent defenses from being able to load up on Kobe. Isn't Gasol the best fourth option ever? Or is Nash the best fourth option ever?
Who will coordinate the offense? Well, presuming the Lakers' hiring of Eddie Jordan comes to fruition, Jordan will. His version of the Princeton offense has a whole lot of flexibility, and it's been damn successful in the NBA when being run by Jason Kidd (twice to the NBA Finals) and Gilbert Arenas (before guns and injuries). If Brown does the wise thing and lets Jordan-Kobe-Nash figure out and independently coordinate the offense, the Lakers should find a comfort zone by, say, early January. That'll free up Brown to concentrate on what he does best: coach defense.
During all this, the person who should grow the most is Howard. He comes to Los Angeles not having to take a team on his shoulders; Kobe already does that. Howard doesn't have to try to lead for the first time in his career; Kobe and Nash will do that and hopefully Howard will learn from watching, up close, how it's done. And by the time Kobe and Nash retire, Howard will have learned how a leader comports himself, when it's time to get serious, how and when to make demands on himself and others.
If Howard is the player he professes to be and becomes the person he can become, then there's zero chance he'll be talking about free agency at the end of the season. He's not going to go anywhere else where he can make more money, or be more famous, or play for a team that matters more to the league or the basketball world. When Wilt and Kareem left the Lakers, it was to retire. Shaq's best years, by far, were in Los Angeles, and it's the reputation, wealth and fame he built there that he'll ride the rest of his life.
Dwight Howard is going to wake up sometime in the middle of the winter and thank the basketball gods he's a Laker and not playing somewhere else, anywhere else. And if he has both greatness in him and a decisive bone in his body, he'll know that being a Laker for the long haul is the best thing that will ever happen to him.