Powerhouse Lakers a must-watch phenomenon

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The Los Angeles Lakers were busy in the offseason, with the additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. The expectations are enormous.

Earlier this summer, it was plausible to think of the L.A. sports scene as standing on the threshold of something historic. Recall how the landscape looked only a couple months ago. The Kings had just finished an out-of-nowhere run to the Stanley Cup, and with all key players returning next season they had the look of a proto-dynasty. Rejuvenated by the defenestration of Frank and Jamie McCourt, the Dodgers were holding their own in the NL West race and starting to splash some money around. They and the Angels both looked like potential World Series teams. USC football and UCLA basketball were loading up for "return to glory"-type campaigns. In July the Lakers shook the NBA by acquiring Steve Nash, and then a month later did so again by trading for Dwight Howard. Quietly, all the while, the steps necessary to return the NFL to Los Angeles were moving forward at the behest of the City Council and stadium developer Anschutz Entertainment Group. A new golden age in L.A. sports seemed imminent.

That was the summer. Astronomically speaking it’s now fall, and as the days grow shorter the giddiness of L.A. sports fans is fading a touch. Annoying realities have curtailed our dreams of hoarding trophies and banners across multiple sports. Consider...

NHL labor nonsense is jeopardizing the start of the new hockey season, which would deprive us of getting to watch one of the most likeable teams in L.A. history, one with a real shot at back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Injuries and hitting slumps have all but buried the Dodgers, while the Angels just haven’t been able to get over the hump in their chase for the American League’s final playoff spot. Barring miracles, the Dodgers will soon reach 24 years without a World Series title (or appearance) and the Angels will miss the playoffs for the third straight season.

USC football got undressed by Stanford and looks more like a Holiday Bowl squad than a BCS-bound powerhouse.

The hoped-for revival of the UCLA hoops program is threatened by a recently revealed NCAA investigation into the eligibility of star freshman recruits Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson.

Finally, just last week we learned that AEG is being put up for sale, throwing the Farmers Field project into significant, if hopefully temporary, doubt.

The summer wasn’t all bad. UCLA football, for the most part, has played better than many expected. Angels fans have enjoyed riding the bandwagon of Mike Trout, easily one of the most electric young stars we’ve seen around here in a while. The Galaxy are recovering their form and positioning themselves for another charge at the MLS Cup. As for the Dodgers, getting rid of McCourt was the important thing they could’ve accomplished, and it’s not like people thought this was the year to win another World Series banner. They’re set up well for next season with some weapons-grade stars in the lineup and, most important of all, Vin Scully committed to at least one more season on the airwaves. Also, James Loney got traded. Life could definitely be worse, but our ambitions to pan-sport dominance have been put in check for the time being.

That’s okay, though, because the Lakers are about to reenter our lives, and when they do, nothing else will matter. A week from today they open training camp. From that moment until their season ends, the city will be transfixed by a team unlike any we’ve ever come across. The idea of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard on the floor together still seems not entirely real. Nor does the idea of a Lakers team that has a decent bench (hello there, Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill) and that can actually shoot three-pointers (hello again, Jodie Meeks, and you too, Steve Nash). The expectations for this group couldn’t be higher. Do we expect them to win a title? Well yes, that goes without saying. Beyond that, however, we expect this Lakers team to be a must-watch phenomenon, night in and night out. Against inferior opponents we expect crushing victories. Against elite teams we expect only slightly less crushing victories.

Obviously the banner is the thing, but there’s potential here for the Lakers to be one of the greatest NBA teams of all time. What Laker fans thirst for is an era-defining colossus, a team so awesomely powerful that when historians look back on 2010 and 2011, those seasons seem will like a weird interregnum, a brief interruption of the natural state of Laker dominance. Metta World Peace wants the Lake Show to push for 73 wins. Metta says a lot of things, most of which shouldn’t be taken seriously, but the interesting thing about his 73-wins comment is that it can’t be just immediately dismissed. The Lakers probably won’t come all that close to 73 wins, but sitting here today, can you say with much confidence that 73 is off the table? At the very least you have to stop and think about it, right?

That’s what the next eight months will be about. We’ll spend them watching the Lakers and wondering what heights they can reach. There will be crises along the way, because these are still the Lakers we’re talking about, but that’s part of the fun of rooting for a superteam. The first time Kobe misses five shots in the last few minutes of a close game, or Dwight honks some crucial late free throws, or Pau looks out of place in the new offense, people will wonder if this grand experiment is breaking down. The Los Angeles Times will run a few pieces comparing this Lakers team to the 2004 Payton-Malone version that came unglued and lasted only one season. Mike Brown will come under fire periodically. And just in case there isn’t enough drama to keep us entertained, we get to spend a season wondering whether Dwight will re-sign with the Lakers at the end of it. (Not that we should expect any pity from Orlando fans.)

It’s usually exaggeration to say a team’s season will be a failure if they don’t win a championship, but not in this instance. Everyone involved with the Lakers, from the top down, views banner number 17 as an imperative. For the Buss family, it would validate the stewardship of Jim Buss and allow him to step out of his father’s shadow. For Mitch Kupchak, it would reward the incredible work he’s done to assemble this roster in spite of the team’s salary-cap situation. For Mike Brown, it would go a long way toward putting to rest concerns about his ability to coach at an elite level. For Kobe, it would answer questions about his willingness to adjust his game to accommodate other superstars. For Laker fans, it would be revenge against craven owners who’ve tried to drag the Lake Show down to their level, first with a collective bargaining agreement designed to punish successful big-market teams and then again in the still-embittering "basketball reasons" affair. Other than that, there’s not much at stake.

And win or lose, the spectacle is not to be missed.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. For more news and notes on Lakers basketball, be sure to read Silver Screen and Roll.

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