Lakers built for championship run with Howard

Since 2004-05, Steve Nash has averaged double-digit assists in every season but one, 2008-09.

That season, a 36-year-old Shaquille O’Neal played center for the Phoenix Suns and led the team in rebounds.

I don’t think that is a coincidence. With Nash running the offense, the Suns liked to push the basketball in transition offsteals and defensive rebounds.

During his back-to-back MVP years, Nash was surrounded by quick, athletic bigs in Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire who could dominate the boards defensively, start a quick outlet pass and then run the floor with Nash and finish on the offensive end of the court.

I was thinking about Nash when the Lakers replaced Andrew Bynum with Dwight Howard as the starting center in Hollywood in a four-team tradeFriday.

With Nash and Howard added to the core of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the pieces fit together better than with Bynum.

The Lakers knocked it out of the park with this deal.

They are a much better fast-break team. Howard is a great rebounder -four times leading the league in rebounds – and a great outlet passer and is much more mobile than Bynum. He will get to more missed shots and start the fast break and run with Nash, Kobe and Gasol and finish on the other end more often than Bynum would.

He makes the team quicker and more athletic, which the Lakers will need to be to get by defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City in the West.

And let’s not forget what Howard can do in a half-court offense. You can’t guard him one-on-one, he constantly has to draw a double team andis such a good passer – the Magic would surround Howard with shooters and have him hit the open man out of the double team – and with Nash and Kobe – two elite scorers on the perimeter – it’s going to be very difficult to guard this Lakers team in the half-court offense.

And that is not even including Gasol. Remember how effective Bynum and Gasol were operating out of the post and passing to each other down low? Now you have a more athletic, more consistent player in Howard playing the role of Bynum. That can do wonders for Gasol’s game.

And Howard will bring it every night, where we only saw flashes with Bynum.

On the other end of the floor, the Lakers instantly become the most powerful defensive team in the league. They were good with the combination of seven-footers Bynum and Gasol but adding Howard takes the defense to a whole new level. He is no question, the best defensive center in the league and is head and shoulders better than anyone else, including Bynum. Heis a three-time Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, he can change games with his shot blocking – he led the league in blocks twice – his shot intimidation and his rebounding; he is consistently one of the best rebounders in the league.

With the Howard/Gasol duo, I don’t know how the opposition can consistently get scorers in the paint. If you get by Nash, or strong defenders in Bryant and Metta World Peace, where are you going to go? You’re going to run into two seven-footers with that much athleticism. The Lakers can eliminate scoring in the paint and control the glass. And if you can’t score in the paint or grab offensive boards and get second-chance points, you can’t win in this league.

Now every deal comes with risk. We are assuming Dwight Howard will be healthy after the 26-year-old had season-ending back surgery in the spring. I am sure Howard will go through a battery of physicals to make sure he is healthy, but 30 of 30 GMs make this deal. Youhave a center with the promise of delivering championships with a single bound, any GM with would instantly get to his phone for a trade call.

Could Bynum continue to improve and maybe make the Lakers regret this deal someday? Could Howard leave the Lakers after this season via free agency? Could Howard struggle coming back from his back injury? Sure, but any chance you have to acquire the best center in the league, you go for it. Bynum is a good basketball player and he was on two championship teams with the Lakers.

But the bar is set very high for LA Lakers centers – George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal come to mind – and while Bynum at times has shown flashes of being very, very good, he wasn’t able to stay healthy long enough to perform at that level. And if you are not the biggest, baddest and most dominant center in the game – don’t apply in LA.

And the last two years, the Lakers haven’t gotten past the second round with Bynum. Their early exit was a disappointment to the fans and something the Lakers organization is not used to.

They are used to competing for a championship every season.

With Howard and Nash joining Kobe and Gasol, they have a championship-caliber team. They got the best center in the league and they didn’t give up too much. By moving Bynum and giving up a lottery-protected first, Mitch Kupchak was able to bring Howard into a situation where he has enough assets left on the team make a run at a championship.

And if he re-signs in LA long term and the Lakers build around him after Kobe retires, multiple championships.

The Lakers are now the favorites in the West, and all I can say is watch out Miami.