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LeBron James did a wonderful job in the role of villain, you must admit. He spurned Cleveland. He hooked up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, announcing his intentions in a one-hour “Decision” on ESPN. He choked in his first NBA Finals and said anyone who criticized him was basically a loser.

But then James went and spoiled the NBA’s ongoing soap opera last June. He won the NBA title. He lived up to the hype. Then James led the U.S. men to the Olympic gold medal in London, performing like the ultimate team guy and winning over basketball fans all over the country.

This was the NBA’s greatest fear, that people would actually start to like James. Hating LeBron and the Heat had become the league’s most reliable story line. Watching them fail was a national spectator sport. What would they do, now that hating LeBron and his buddies had become passe?

Well, just in time for Halloween, there’s a new NBA villain, another collection of hardwood ghouls for your hating pleasure: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers!

You thought three superstars gravy-training for a run at a title was a bit much? How about four? Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, perennial all-stars, have been joined by center Dwight Howard and point guard Steve Nash, two men destined for the hoop Hall of Fame.

It’s hard to fathom, but barely four months after winning the championship, the Heat have surrendered their distinction as the most despised team in sports. Over one 35-day stretch in the summer, the Lakers acquired Nash and Howard – giving up Andrew Bynum, draft picks and scrubs – and established themselves as a clear threat to Miami’s chances of repeating.

Howard is the new bad guy. He’ll smile and gobble his Skittles and act like an overgrown kid, but he tarnished his reputation with his manipulative act last season in Orlando. He lobbied to get his coach, Stan Van Gundy, fired, and orchestrated his trade out of town.

There was no publicized “Decision,” because Howard kept changing his mind. He wanted to leave. He wanted to stay. He made a list of teams for a trade. He didn’t want to go to L.A., because that’s what Shaquille O’Neal did. Then he decided L.A. was the best place to win a title.

So maybe Howard, who will be a free agent after the season, is a 7-foot phony. The big shots in the NBA don’t care. They’re salivating over this juicy new story line. Ratings were great when LeBron was chasing a title. Imagine how big it’ll be if he’s going for a repeat against the Lakers.

Commissioner David Stern, who has announced he will step down in February of 2014, would love it. Stern took over in the middle of the 1984 season. That was the year Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, whose arrival had sparked a new interest in the sport, finally met in the NBA Finals.

There’s a similar anticipation for a championship series between James and Bryant, who was considered the best player in the game until LeBron won a title. Bryant is 34, near the end of his career. James has surpassed him as a player. But a Kobe-LeBron final, with Bryant looking to equal Michael Jordan with a sixth championship, would be one for the ages.

Of course, they have to get there first. A lot can happen between now and June. The Lakers have four starters who are 32 or older. Nash is 38. Metta World Peace (the former Ron Artest) will be 33 next month, and he’s no longer the defensive stopper of his early days. Gasol is 32.

But older teams have a history of making runs in the playoffs. The Mavericks, Spurs, Lakers and Celtics all have won titles in recent years with older lineups. Players can be effective well into their 30s nowadays. They’re wiser and more schooled in the nuances of the postseason.

Oklahoma City would dispute that, of course. A young Thunder team stunned a high-flying, veteran San Antonio squad in the Western finals last year. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook came of age in that series, which established the Thunder as the rising young power in the league.

But the trade of James Harden, the NBA’s best sixth man, has shaken the Thunder to the core. On Saturday, Oklahoma City dealt Harden to the Houston Rockets. They got a nice package in return, including Kevin Martin. But it hurts the Thunder in the short term and makes L.A. the favorite out West.

It’s never wise to count out the Spurs, who had won 20 straight games, 10 in the playoffs, before collapsing against Okie City. Tim Duncan is 36, Manu Ginobili 35. But Tony Parker is a great point guard and leader. They have a solid young supporting cast and the league’s top coach in Gregg Popovich.

Denver could be the team to watch in the West. George Karl loves unselfish players, and he picked up one of the best in Andre Iguodala. Ty Lawson is a rising young point guard. Danillo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried are emerging forwards, and JaVale McGee can be a force if he ever grows up.

Critics have been burying the Celtics for years. But they came closer than anyone to knocking off the Heat last year. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett aren’t done yet. The Celts have enough depth up front to keep the old guys fresh for the playoffs. Rajon Rondo can take a team a long way.

The Pacers played Miami tough in the playoffs, too, and they have some emerging young stars in center Roy Hibbert and shooting guard Paul George. They’re deep and balanced, if somewhat anonymous, and should get back to the conference semifinals.

There’s been a lot of hoopla about the Nets’ move to Brooklyn, and it’s great for the borough. But the team could make noise in the East. Deron Williams is the best point guard in the league. He’ll do wonders for Joe Johnson, a pure scorer who was acquired from the Hawks. If center Brook Lopez stays healthy, Brooklyn could make a run.

The Nets aren’t the only ones who changed addresses. A lot of key players have moved on, with Nash and Howard the most notable. Jeremy Lin, who was the toast of New York for one magical month, is now with Houston. The Knicks decided they would be better off with 39-year-old Jason Kidd.

Andrew Bynum landed in Philadelphia; Grant Hill and Lamar Odom with the Clippers; O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison with Dallas; Mo and Marvin Williams with the Jazz; Andre Kirilenko and Brandon Roy with the Timberwolves.

There are a number of intriguing rookies, though it’s rare for a rookie to make a big impact on a winning team. Anthony Davis, the No. 1 overall pick, will learn on the job in New Orleans. His former Kentucky teammate, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, will do the same with a bad Charlotte team.

Portland’s Damian Lillard, New Orleans’ Austin Rivers, Golden State’s Harrison Barnes and Houston’s Terrence Jones figure to be among the more interesting newcomers. Oh, and don’t forget former St. Bonaventure star Andrew Nicholson, whose savvy play has turned heads in Orlando.

The biggest change from a year ago, of course, is that they’re actually playing. A year ago, we were in the midst of a lockout that lasted until Christmas and cut the regular season to 66 games. This time, it’s the NHL’s turn. If you’re not busy, check the hoop guys out.

If nothing else, you can always hate on the Lakers

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com