The last we heard from the Lakers was a noisy start in the playoffs, followed by an eerie tumble in the Phoenix desert, a 31-point loss in Game 7 and a 3-1 series lead frittered away for only the eighth time in NBA history.
Then came a relatively hushed off-season -- with the team fenced in by the salary cap -- and, worse, the never-ending trail of medical reports.
In a slight nod to coincidence, the Lakers begin the season tonight against the team that dismissed them in last spring’s playoffs. One-third of the Lakers’ roster is battling injuries, and the coach is still recovering from the aftereffects of hip-replacement surgery.
Kobe Bryant has not fully recovered from mid-July arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, saying Sunday that he doesn’t yet “trust” his knee when it comes to planting and cutting. He will, however, probably play tonight after he ran through a Monday morning practice in which he said he felt “really good ... really, really good.”
Vladimir Radmanovic, the lone free-agent acquisition of note, had a forgettable exhibition season, making only 27.8% of his shots primarily because of a sprained ligament in his right hand. Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm, the team’s top centers, are out until at least mid-November -- Brown because of a sore right shoulder and Mihm because of an ankle that hasn’t healed from a severe sprain in mid-March.
Their coach, Phil Jackson, turned 61 in September and had the hip-replacement surgery on the first day of training camp, exactly four weeks ago. He will be on the sideline tonight, but isn’t expected to travel with the team for its first road game, Wednesday at Golden State.
The Lakers, all the healthy ones anyway, could take time to look back on last season and see the good, the bad, and the really bad, as in the final three games of the playoffs.
They were certainly better than the 34-48 effort of 2004-05, although there was a nagging inability last season to win close games and a tug-of-war to stay above .500. A season-ending 11-3 run cemented their status as the seventh-seeded team in the West with a 45-37 record.
Along the way, Bryant put up 81 points against Toronto and handily won his first scoring title by averaging 35.4 points. He also returned to the All-Defensive team after being passed over by voters in 2004-05.
But the collapse against Phoenix, now being billed as a learning experience by many Lakers, was still worrisome. The 121-90 score was the worst Game 7 loss in team history. Bryant scored 24 points, missed all three of his second-half shots and had only one point after halftime, leading to criticism that tracked him for weeks.
Fast-forward to this season, and, as if to indicate how unpredictable it will be, various pundits have the Lakers pegged as high as third and as low as 10th in the Western Conference.
Fifteen of the Lakers’ first 20 games are at home -- 16 if a road game against the Clippers is counted -- but if there are concerns about the top-heavy home schedule and Bryant’s knee, the Lakers aren’t showing them.
“We don’t think we’re going to take a back seat to any teams,” Jackson said.
This month, before he went under the knife, Jackson said 45 victories probably would get the team back in the playoffs, a mark to be met if the younger players continue to progress.
A day before he turned 19, Andrew Bynum turned the Denver Nuggets’ frontcourt inside and out during an exhibition game, totaling 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists and making nine of 12 shots. Sasha Vujacic’s outside shot looks better, and first-round draft pick Jordan Farmar has been a source of energy off the bench in the preseason.
Of course, the regular season boils down to Bryant and Lamar Odom.
Odom struggled with the triangle offense last season, slogging his way until the final two months. His scoring average dropped for a third consecutive season, to 14.8 points. Lakers coaches have marveled at his penchant to fill the stat sheet with rebounds and assists, but they are now asking him to be more aggressive in scoring.
And Bryant, now entering his 11th season, did not play in any of the Lakers’ eight preseason games and has had only a handful of practices with the team because of soreness in his surgically repaired knee.
It finally looked like some of the zest had returned to his game at Monday’s practice, perhaps just in time for the Lakers.
Bryant couldn’t stop smiling afterward.
“It’s exciting because we’ve been together for three years now,” he said. “We understand one another, we communicate very well with one another. We move the ball extremely well. It’s just going to be exciting to see how we develop.”
Bryant, now 28, was then asked if the Lakers are again a playoff team.
“That’s for everybody else to debate,” he said. “We believe that if we can execute properly and please Phil and the coaching staff, I believe we’ll be there in the end.”
If the Lakers look around the West, they will see improved rosters on several teams that finished below them last season.
New Orleans added Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler. Houston added Bonzi Wells and Shane Battier. Minnesota added Mike James. Utah added Derek Fisher for a nominal price. Golden State reunited with Coach Don Nelson. Sacramento will get a full season with Ron Artest.
Not to mention the returning core of several successful teams, including Dallas, San Antonio, Phoenix and, yes, the Clippers.
“It’s as competitive as it’s ever been in the history of the league if you look across the board at every team,” Bryant said. “It’s going to be a fun year. It’s going to be a very challenging year, but we’re up for it.”
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A statistical comparison between the Lakers and Clippers from last season (NBA rank in parentheses):
LAKERS IN REGULAR SEASON
* Points per game...99.43 (7th)
* Opponents’ points...96.93 (15th)
* Field-goal %...45.3 (18th)
* Opp. field-goal %...45.0 (12th)
* 3-point FG %...34.9 (18th)
* Opp. 3-point FG %...35.3 (12th)
* Free-throw %...74.5 (15th)
* Assists...21.1 (9th)
LAKERS IN PLAYOFFS
* Points per game...100.5 (5th)
* Opponents’ points...107.2 (16th)
* Field-goal %...45.4 (6th)
* Opp. field-goal %...48.8 (15th)
* 3-point FG %...33.3 (8th)
* Opp. 3-point FG %...40.3 (14th)
* Free-throw %...76.4 (8th)
* Assists...17.1 (12th)
CLIPPERS IN REGULAR SEASON
* Points per game...97.1 (17th)
* Opponents’ points...95.6 (11th)
* Field-goal %...46.5 (6th)
* Opp. field-goal %...43.5 (5th)
* 3-point FG %...34.4 (21st)
* Opp. 3-point FG %...34.7 (5th)
* Free-throw %...79.1 (2nd)
* Assists...20.8 (14th)
CLIPPERS IN PLAYOFFS
* Points per game...105.6 (2nd)
* Opponents’ points...101.9 (12th)
* Field-goal %...49.1 (2nd)
* Opp. field-goal %...43.5 (2nd)
* 3-point FG %...37.8 (5th)
* Opp. 3-point FG %...33.9 (6th)
* Free-throw %...81.6 (2nd)
* Assists...20.7 (4th)