LOS ANGELES — Ten and 12 may be the new lucky numbers in Las Vegas.
Those are the jersey numbers of recent Lakers acquisitions Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, otherwise known as the saviors of a franchise that stumbled in the Western Conference semifinals the last two seasons.
Bettors have such robust faith in the refortified Lakers that they have placed more wagers on them to win the 2013 NBA title than any other team at nearly a dozen Las Vegas sports books.
Yes, that includes the defending champion Miami Heat and the same Oklahoma City Thunder that quickly bounced the Lakers out of the playoffs this year. The Heat has slightly more money bet on it at several sports books but lags far behind the Lakers in terms of number of bets.
“People just keep betting them,” Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports for the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, said of the Lakers, “and I can understand why.”
Adding the game's best center and a soon-to-be Hall of Fame point guard to a roster already featuring Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol has made many bettors consider the Lakers a (purple and) gold ticket.
Kornegay said the Lakers have “by far the most tickets on them” to win the title at his sports book, where they have drawn more than twice the money to win the title than the Heat. The Lakers have four times as many bets placed on them at MGM Resorts than does the Heat.
This avalanche of wagers on the Lakers turned them into co-favorites to win the title this season, matching the same 9-4 odds as Miami and topping the Thunder's 4-1 odds, according to the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.
The resurgent Clippers are at 30-1 title odds as they continue to distance themselves from the franchise's days as a triple-digit long shot and rank No. 7 in terms of money bet.
Part of the Lakers' allure is the proximity of what has long been the most popular NBA franchise for casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. “We have way more California visitors than we do from Florida,” said Jay Rood, vice president of race and sports at MGM Resorts, which encompass 10 sports books in Las Vegas and two in Reno.
Howard and Nash have also been major selling points among bettors.
The Lakers were listed at 12-1 by the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino before Nash joined the team in July. Those title odds improved to 6-1 with the two-time most valuable player in the fold.
Once Howard was traded to the Lakers last month, their championship odds lowered again, to 3-1. They received one final bump based on the ensuing flurry of bets on them to win a third title in five seasons.
“Nash started it all, but Howard put it over the top,” Kornegay said. “As of right now, the sports books of Las Vegas definitely don't need the Lakers to win the championship.”
At least one NBA coach has gone on record as saying they won't.
“We're going to beat the Lakers,” Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks told reporters last week. He was joking. Or so it seemed at the time.
“We never worry about other teams,” he said. “We focus on what we do.”
Even with Nash and Howard on board, it's not apparent the Lakers have a ready-made solution to stop the Thunder's dazzling offense with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder didn't make any significant offseason moves besides signing 7-foot-3 free agent Hasheem Thabeet, but it still possesses a few favorable matchups with the Lakers.
“Oklahoma City has an overwhelming speed and quickness advantage,” ABC and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said, “but in the half-court, I think Howard's impact is really going to be felt.”
It remains unclear whether Lamar Odom will make a difference for the Clippers considering his recent track record. The same player who was sixth man of the year with the Lakers sulked through a wasted season with the Dallas Mavericks.
Van Gundy said Odom, back with his first NBA team, could be on the verge of a career revival.
“Adding Lamar Odom, to me, is such an interesting pickup because I love the way he plays,” Van Gundy said. “He's completely unselfish and hopefully he can bounce back from a really subpar year. If he can, boy, is that a huge upgrade for their team.”
TNT analyst Steve Kerr said forward Blake Griffin's development will determine whether the Clippers become contenders in the Western Conference.
“He has to do what Karl Malone did after the first few years of his career,” Kerr said. “He added a jump shot and started making free throws. When you could go to him on the block and get consistent scoring, it changed everything and I think that's the next step for the Clippers.”
Miami wouldn't figure to need much help to defend its title after returning its Big Three, but the Heat received a boost with the signing of free agent Ray Allen as a reserve sharpshooter.
“This is not Ray Allen at 28 or 32 or even 34,” Van Gundy said of the 37-year-old, “but certainly he had a very good year I thought last year. If he can stay healthy and make that adjustment 1 / 8to coming off the bench 3 / 8, his professionalism, his offensive energy, his shooting ability will do nothing but help an already great team.”
The Lakers are widely considered a juggernaut because of an unrivaled starting lineup featuring Bryant, Howard, Nash, Gasol and Metta World Peace.
But can the star-studded roster pass a chemistry test in its first season together?
“I think it will happen quickly because they have guys who are really smart players between Kobe and Nash and Gasol in particular,” Kerr said. “Those three guys are basketball savants and they're also all at the stage where they have nothing to prove individually, so all their efforts will go into trying to make this thing work.”
A legion of Las Vegas bettors would seem to agree.