Supporting cast should help Kobe age better

Signs of old age start showing on most of us around 40. More doctor visits, less sleep, more gray hair, less energy. Kobe Bryant is not there yet, but in NBA superstar terms, he’s getting close to the gray area.

Bryant was the league’s top dog for several years. Even as late as April, I still ranked him as the game’s top player. If he wasn’t the best athlete on the floor, his will to win big games was unmatched.

But the playoffs changed the pecking order, and the Olympics put it in ink instead of pencil. Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated early again as LeBron James and Kevin Durant stole the show over the summer. Bryant left London as no better than the world’s third-best player.

While still relevant, the Lakers were slipping, too. They needed to do something big to change that, and trading for center Dwight Howard and point guard Steve Nash qualified as monster moves, even with Nash showing he’s definitely older and slower.

The Lakers are making the climb back, and Bryant, at 34, has a legitimate shot at another championship. It won’t show tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center, where the Lakers face the Sacramento Kings for an overhyped preseason game, but the odds don’t lie.

“I think the Lakers are the favorites to win it,” said Mike Colbert, vice president of Cantor Gaming sports books. “It might take them a little while to jell. But by the end of the year, the Lakers will be the team to beat. I do think they will be the best team come playoff time.”

The Lakers are 2-1 on the Cantor odds board to win the title, slightly above defending champion Miami (5-2) and Oklahoma City (9-2). Durant and the Thunder pounded the Lakers in the playoffs, but things have changed.

“Howard is going to be an absolute beast,” Colbert said. And the subtraction of Andrew Bynum and addition of Howard – call it a swap of drama queens – was more significant than any other offseason deal.

It didn’t quiet James’ first championship party in South Beach, Fla., but it set the table for a more intriguing marathon season. There is a real chance now we could see a Kobe-LeBron NBA Finals showdown.

Durant is getting his due respect. Oklahoma City, the defending Western Conference champ, and Miami share the top spot on the LVH regular-season win totals board at 60½. Cantor lists the Heat at 61½ (under minus-135) and the Thunder at 60½, but it’s that close at the top.

“Oklahoma City will probably win more games than the Lakers,” Colbert said. “From a regular-season wins perspective, I don’t disagree with it.”

The Lakers are attracting consistent and heavy two-way action at 58½, and while the public might be inclined to jump on board and bet over that number, caution signs are showing.

Howard and Pau Gasol are not at full strength on the front line, Metta World Peace is always a mental basket case, and Bryant and Nash are new partners in an older backcourt. The theory is the Lakers will start slowly, pace themselves through the regular season and turn up the intensity by February.

“It’s going to take the Lakers awhile to get the engine going,” LVH oddsmaker Jeff Sherman said. “I don’t think they are going to start blowing teams out of the water early in the season. With what you see in the preseason, it’s going to take some time.”

The Lakers have lost all four of their preseason games by a combined 92 points. That’s a meaningless stat, unless you’re wagering on preseason games. But the reality is the latest “Dream Team” still is getting its act together.

“Did the move of Howard from Orlando to the Lakers make L.A. the most improved team in the league?” handicapper Jim Kruger of VegasSportsAuthority.com said. “I’ve heard in the media and read articles on how the Lakers are going to set a regular-season record for most wins at 73. Of course, those people also believe it never rains in Southern California.

“There is valid reasoning for high optimism with the arrival of Howard, the best center in the league. He is a large improvement over Bynum defensively and is much better offensively in the pick and roll, especially with the arrival of Nash. But Nash is old and has a history of back problems. He had the third-worst turnover rate last season among starting point guards.”

The Lakers face a few troubling questions, but none as serious as those looming in Chicago and Dallas.

The Bulls’ win total is low at 47½ because no one knows when point guard Derrick Rose will return from a blown knee. The Mavericks’ win total, which opened at 45½, is off the board at the LVH as Dirk Nowitzki sits in the preseason with a swollen right knee.

As for the Lakers’ longtime star, Kruger said: “Bryant is trending downward. He doesn’t attack the rim like he used to, and he took the most long 2-point jump shots in the league, helping account for a downturn in his shooting percentage.”

A downturn in shooting percentage is another sign of old age. But Bryant will be rejuvenated with a better supporting cast. Retirement is a long way off.

■ CLOSING NUMBERS – After a mediocre 4-2 week, I’m 18-4 the past four weeks in college football. The percentages say it trends downhill from here, but here are five plays for Saturday (home team in CAPS):

TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO (+11½) over San Jose State; Brigham Young (+13½) over NOTRE DAME; OHIO STATE (-18½) over Purdue; Michigan State (+10) over MICHIGAN; Louisiana State (-3½) over TEXAS A&M.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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