It's come to this for the 16-time champs and formerly undisputed kings of Los Angeles: Their season hinges on a hobbled 18-year veteran, the
These aren't your father's
These are a bunch of guys in the last year of their contracts who will play hard and try their best — problem spots last season, no doubt, but more likely catchphrases in Memphis or Atlanta, not Los Angeles.
To say the Lakers are worried about making the playoffs this season is completely accurate, hopeful whispers from the franchise dreaming of seventh or eighth in the Western Conference, an alarming drop from the usual championship-or-bust mantra.
This is what happens when teams grow old, and it can be ugly for a while.
Dwight Howard turned his 27-year-old back on the Lakers in July, leaving them A) flabbergasted, and B) on the losing end of an important free agent for the first time since
The championship that seemed so close amid the euphoria a year ago couldn't appear any farther away now.
The Lakers will have a golden chance to restock when their payroll dwindles to comparative pennies next July, but there will be problems between now and then. Many.
Bryant has done small workouts by himself, but a return date has not been established by the team — Thanksgiving? Christmas? Somewhere in between? — so the Lakers will throw a yoke around Gasol and hope for the best.
Gasol was a calamity last season, the polite star melting amid career lows in points (13.7) and field-goal accuracy (46.6%), along with Bryant's infamous quote to man up and accept a temporary demotion.
Now it's on him as the lead option until Bryant returns.
He feels it, taking in a deep breath when asked about assuming the burden for however long. "I feel the responsibility of making it work and making the team function," Gasol said. "Help my teammates get better. That's my responsibility."
Gasol is in the last year of his contract, a phrase to be well-worn in describing almost every Lakers player.
Steve Nash, one of the few whose contract goes beyond this season, is hoping simply to not wear down.
He'll be 40 in February and became the oldest point man in the league once
His ankle has bothered him this month and he averaged 4.0 points in exhibition play, tied for 12th on the Lakers.
If Nash doesn't turn it around this season, the team might buy him out of the $9.7 million he's owed next year, spreading it out over three years to create even more cap room when it's shopping time next July.
His wit has been a welcome addition to the Lakers and it was humorous to hear him describe his Great Wall sledding experience gone awry, but there's no comparison between his numbers last season (10.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 0.8 blocks) and Howard's (17.1, 12.4, 2.4).
Kaman and Gasol have found common ground in exhibition play and might be on the court together more than originally expected.
"We can pass the ball, shoot the ball from the outside, post up," Kaman said. "Pau is head and shoulders above everybody else the way he passes the ball and makes his teammates better. There is nobody except maybe his brother [Marc, Memphis' center] that makes everybody around him that much better. He makes it easier on me."
Kaman, 31, is a quick study. He understands the need for Gasol to step up.
"He's going to get a lot of pressure this year, and in past years he hasn't had the pressure," Kaman said. "I have no problem being the 'B' guy. Pau's game speaks for itself."
There's not much at stake this season. Just the Lakers' reputation as the
Next summer will be a whole new test. Who can the Lakers get to join them after being so publicly spurned a a year earlier?