LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - With 16 NBA Championship banners hanging proudly from the rafters at their Staples Center home, Los Angeles Lakers players and their fans have become well accustomed to glittering success and lofty expectations.
Going into their 2012-13 campaign, however, there is a much greater sense of excitement and anticipation than usual given the offseason acquisitions of six-time All-Star Dwight Howard and twice former Most Valuable Player Steve Nash.
Howard and Nash will join Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace in a potent starting five bristling with experience, talent and virtually every award and accolade available in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Add to that intoxicating mix the Lakers’ new Princeton offense which emphasizes constant motion, passing and back-door cuts and you have the recipe for what could well be an extraordinary season for the Los Angeles franchise.
“I’ve been on some very good teams but to have a front line like this and have Kobe Bryant on the roster as well is phenomenal,” said former Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns point guard Nash, who was the league MVP in 2005 and 2006.
“This is probably the best chance I’ve ever had at an NBA title. The beauty of this team is that we have a lot of guys that can make the defense pay if we play together and we space the floor and read and react.”
Nash, who moved to Los Angeles in a trade with the Suns in July, is relishing the opportunity to trigger the Lakers offense, especially with the towering figures of the seven-foot Gasol and the six-foot, 11-inch Howard on the floor.
“I‘m going to stand my butt out there outside the three-point line and give them space to operate,” smiled Nash, who has established himself as one of the top players of all time in the NBA for three-point shooting, free throws and total assists.
Though Nash and Bryant have been fierce rivals in the Western Conference over the years, both players are excited by what is possible now that they share the purple and gold colors of the Lakers.
“He made no qualms about the fact that he thought we’d be a great fit together and could really help each other,” said the 38-year-old Nash.
Five-time NBA champion Bryant, widely regarded as one of the best closers in the game, has long respected the creative talents and pick-and-roll genius of Nash.
“He just makes the game easy,” said shooting guard Bryant, an All-Star selection on 14 occasions. “It’s a joy for me. I’ve had to facilitate and score my entire career. I don’t have to do that now and I‘m pretty happy about it.”
“He’s a great all-around player. He just picks his spots. He can still score no matter what the defense is going to give him. If (the defense) is not going to be honest, he’s going to make them pay.”
The only question mark hovering over the Lakers as they approach their first game of the regular season, at home against the Mavericks on October 30, is the fitness of center Howard, who is popularly known as Superman because of his athletic prowess.
A three-time defensive player of the year who moved to Los Angeles from the Orlando Magic in a blockbuster 12-player trade including the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers, Howard had surgery in April to repair a herniated disk in his back.
“I don’t want to go out there fatigued and injure something else, because most of the time that’s when you have injuries,” said Howard, who has been carefully increasing his workload during Lakers practices.
“I don’t want to take a step back. I’ve come too far from where I was at.”
Bryant is already drooling over the prospect of a fully fit Howard, Orlando’s top scorer and rebounder for each of the last six seasons, feasting on a regular diet of passes from Nash.
“Dwight is going to be eating all day,” Bryant said. “(Nash) is going to put defenses in a really tough position.”
The Lakers have already scaled giddy heights, most notably during the “Showtime” era from 1979-1989 with Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and under the shrewd coaching of Phil Jackson from 1999-2004 and from 2005-2011.
Their fans now expect more of the same this season with Nash pulling the strings and the All-Star trio of Bryant, Howard and Gasol taking full advantage.
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue