Only four months ago, the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers were NBA glamour franchises heading in the opposite direction.
Miami had just breezed to a championship and seemed perfectly positioned for more, as superstar LeBron James promised when he arrived in south Florida.
The Lakers, meanwhile, were in danger of replacing the Clippers as the “other” team in L.A.
They finished nine games behind San Antonio in the Western Conference and — holy Michael Olowokandi — one game ahead of the team long known as the Paper Clips.
In the playoffs, the Lakers’ situation got worse.
They needed seven games to beat Denver in the first round and lasted only five games against Oklahoma City in the second round.
It was the second straight year Kobe & Co. didn’t come close to reaching the conference finals.
Suddenly, the Lakers looked like the Bakersfield Jam. They were in danger of falling so far behind Miami (and others) in the NBA pecking order that some wondered whether L.A. — with all its money and all its free-agent recruiting advantages — could keep pace.
Fast-forward to today.
With the start of the 2012-13 season only hours away, the Lakers are just fine, thank you, after a face-lift that would make any aging Hollywood movie star proud. In rapid-fire succession, the Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to their roster.
Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal when they moved to L.A, Howard is the No. 1 center in the league — with the skills to be the best of his generation.
Meanwhile, Nash is a certain Hall of Famer who is on the downhill side of 38 but remains Stockton-esque in his ability to out-perform his age.
They join Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Bryant in a starting lineup that resembles the Magic-Worthy-Kareem ensemble that was winning championships in the 1980s.
The new-look Lakers also added veterans Antawn Jamison and Chris Duhon to their bench, helping make them the team everybody outside of Oklahoma City and San Antonio believes will win the Western Conference and get a shot to derail Miami in the NBA Finals.
Think about a Lakers-Heat matchup, which those who profit from exploding TV ratings have likely been doing since L.A. reeled in Howard and Nash.
The NBA Finals would be Magical — excuse the expression — and interest in it would reach Michael Jordan-like heights.
Of course, even Jordan’s Super Bulls had issues, as do these Lakers, who are older than the Real Housewives of Orange County.
Bryant is only 34, but he starts his 17th year in the NBA. Counting the regular season, the playoffs and All-Star Games, he has played over 51,000 minutes.
Father Time is winning his race with Nash, too. He’ll be 39 before the All-Star break and comes off the lowest scoring season (12.5 ppg) since 1999-2000.
Nash won’t be asked to score as much as he has in the past — not with Bryant, Howard and Gasol around — but he must prove that he’s still capable when left open.
Nash’s one-on-one defense has also deteriorated so, more than any Laker in coach Mike Brown’s rotation, he will depend on Howard and Gasol to make life miserable for anyone getting into the lane.
One other thing.
The Lakers went 0-8 in the preseason, which is meaningless and not worthy of a mention, unless you are the rebuilt Lakers.
Nobody seems to worried prior to L.A.’s regular-season opener Tuesday night against Dallas, but a slow start in the games that count would jolt Laker Nation like a 6.5 earthquake.
Don’t count on it, however.
Owner Jerry Buss didn’t approve a $100 million payroll to play second fiddle to the Heat.
Or the Clippers.
The 2012-13 NBA season opens Tuesday with three games — Washington at Cleveland, 5 p.m.; Boston at Miami, 6 p.m. (TNT); and Dallas at the L.A. Lakers, 8:30 p.m. (TNT). The Jazz open against Dallas on Wednesday at Energy Solutions Arena, part of 10-game schedule that night.