LOS ANGELES -- In the summer of 1996, the Lakers traded for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant and signed Shaquille O'Neal from Orlando, remaking a vaunted franchise in 22 days. Last month, after Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak introduced Steve Nash at the team's practice facility, he reflected on the challenges involved with such a stunning transformation.
"I'm not really sure that's possible," he said, and cited all the usual evidence: the new CBA, financial restrictions, complex contracts and deals.
And yet, the summer of 2012 is feeling a lot like '96, because the Lakers are on the verge of acquiring another behemoth from Orlando and once again recreating themselves on the fly. Kupchak, the clubhouse leader for executive of the year, was at least right about one thing. It is harder to complete an overhaul in the modern era. After all, the Lakers needed more than 22 days this time. They needed 35.
There were so many reasons Dwight Howard was not coming to Los Angeles, besides the most obvious one, being that he didn't really want to. The Lakers didn't have any attractive draft picks, didn't have any young assets outside of Andrew Bynum, and didn't have any flexibility to absorb bad contracts. Howard refused to sign an extension and acted as though the Lakers were slightly more appealing than the Bobcats.
But there was one reason Howard was always coming to Los Angeles, the same reason Bryant remained calm after the Lakers fell to the Thunder last spring, instead of panicking the way he did five years ago. When this organization comes to a crossroads, and a franchise player hits the market, they don't flinch. They strike. They did it with O'Neal in '96 and he delivered three titles. They did it with Pau Gasol in '08 and he spurred two more. Howard is just the latest in a conga line of oversized centerpieces, starting with George Mikan, and continuing through Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Howard may not care about Lakers history now, but he will, once he is part of it. If the Mavericks expect him to leave L.A. next summer, they will be as disappointed as they were with Deron Williams.
The NBA poked some fun at the Lakers expense in the past year, executives mocking them because they were supposedly run by the owner's son, a bartender turned scout, and assorted know-nothings who couldn't hold Daryl Morey's laptop. But the laughs end Friday, when this trade becomes official and the Lakers become the envy of the league once again. Big 3s are apparently out of style now. You need four.
The best part of the deal for L.A. is the player who wasn't included. The Lakers could have slid Gasol into the package and pared salary, significant considering they are well into the luxury tax, and soon the super tax. All winter, the Lakers indicated they planned to cut costs, but then they were left to watch the Finals on television in June, and saw a path back in July. By retaining Gasol, the Lakers keep an unselfish and undervalued 7-footer who will thrive alongside Nash while deferring to Howard. Teams risk mutiny with four stars on the court at once, unless one of those stars is Gasol, and another is Nash.
What the NBA was so desperate to prevent last December, another Lakers juggernaut, has come to fruition and there is no email Dan Gilbert can send in protest. When the Chris Paul deal was vetoed, Lakers officials complained that it would set the organization back 10 years, and they might have been right if they moped about it. Instead, they exiled Lamar Odom, and turned the trade exception into Nash. Then they added Howard, and as strange as it sounds, they are better off than if the Paul deal had gone through. Call them lucky, but it's been three lucky decades.
Blending new parts always takes time, but as long as Howard's back recovers from surgery, he should be an ideal pick-and-roll partner for Nash. He will also protect the rim, crucial for the Lakers, given their porous perimeter defense. Howard's relationship with Bryant will be fascinating to follow -- Howard likes to play the clown, as O'Neal used to do, and Bryant does not suffer fools -- but Bryant is older and needs Howard's help in his quest for a sixth championship.
The Lakers are still Bryant's team, and will be at least until his contract expires in 2014, but eventually they will belong to Howard. He will be the headliner, without Bryant or Gasol or Nash, and maybe that makes him nervous. Maybe it was one of the reasons he didn't want to be in L.A. But this summer should reassure him, because when the day comes that he needs help, the Lakers will find it.
They will strike, and if history is any indication, they will strike twice. It's what they do. It's who they are.