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The rest is history

Times Staff Writer

The last we saw of the Lakers, they were knocked around in five games by the Phoenix Suns, sent to another meek first-round exit and ushered into a quiet off-season.

They hoped it would be quiet, anyway.

But Kobe Bryant demanded to be traded, parking-lot videos started to surface, Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom had surgeries that are still affecting them, and, well, here the Lakers are, ready or not.

The season begins tonight at Staples Center against Houston, and, of course, it will be televised nationally, and, of course, all eyes will be on Bryant, who has faced intense media scrutiny since training camp began four weeks ago.

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The latest update, in order of importance: Bryant is still a member of the Lakers, he has talked to Coach Phil Jackson about the allegation he hasn’t been giving his all, and he plans on dressing like the “Harry Potter” character Lord Voldemort for Halloween, or so he says.

The team lurched along an uninspiring 3-4 in exhibition play, amid lowered expectations in which half the NBA pundits seem to think the Lakers will not make the playoffs. Either way, nobody is predicting an incredible upward advance through the Western Conference after consecutive seventh-place finishes.

Derek Fisher is an upgrade over Smush Parker, rookie Javaris Crittenton and second-year burner Jordan Farmar give the Lakers a pair of promising young guards, and center Andrew Bynum is now 20 years old and in his third year in the league.

Brown will be the starting center tonight despite a sore ankle, and Odom said Monday he was still a week or two from returning to action, but Bryant remains the story. He and Jackson spoke over the weekend on the heels of Jackson’s very public observation that Bryant hadn’t “thrown his heart and soul into performing on the floor.”

Bryant restated his case Monday, saying the assessment was inaccurate. “I’m fine,” he said. “I played like crap, but I’m fine.”

Jackson seemed satisfied with their brief talk, saying, “He knows that his heart’s got to be in it. That’s really important.”

Bryant’s exhibition season was the opposite of successful, with a scoring average of 29.4 points per 48 minutes, but also a turnover rate of 11.2 per 48 minutes.

The trade-rumor cycle has been circulating. Bryant declined to address it, referring questions to his agent and the Lakers’ front office. As for Jackson, he said, “There’s nothing imminent right now.”

Still...

“We’re listening,” Jackson said. “That’s part of the deal that we have to do, so we listen.”

When will the roster be settled?

“It’s better sooner than later, in my estimation,” he said. “Let’s get settled and figure out what’s going to happen. And if nothing’s going to happen, then go from there.”

It left Bryant on the court for Monday’s practice, an athletic sleeve on his sore right wrist and a more benevolent review from Jackson, who said Bryant was “sparkling.”

“He was doing the things that we want to have done out there on the floor and he was making the game fun,” Jackson said. “That’s the good side of things that we want to see out of Kobe Bryant.”

Meanwhile, Monday was another day of TV cameras being knocked around as reporters scrambled to hear Bryant’s latest words.

He did not say he had stepped off his trade demand, but he indicated he would be typically resolute on the court, for whichever team was signing his checks -- even if it happened to be (gasp!) still the Lakers.

“I’ve told you that from training camp -- when the season starts, my focus is here with this team,” he said. “I don’t want it to be a distraction, I don’t want it to be something we talk about all the time. . . . This is where my duties are, playing with these guys. I’m still a Laker, I’m here. I’m ready to play.”

Across the nation, Bryant was being analyzed and super-analyzed.

TNT analyst Charles Barkley, a past foil of Bryant’s, had some choice words in New York. “What Phil Jackson said [Saturday], that was like they’re at the point of no return now,” he said. “There’s a point where you know you can make a marriage work, but what Phil Jackson said yesterday, that was the end of it.

“Wasn’t no doubt in my mind [Bryant] was just blowing off games and practice because he was [mad] about what Dr. Buss said. They shouldn’t have said that. He should have went to Kobe, ‘Kobe you want to be traded, we’ll try to make it work.’ But the guy’s skipping practices, going through the motions.”

There was also plenty of fodder for conspiracy theorists. In an opening-day roster of all 30 teams released by the NBA, Bryant was listed as an inactive player for the Lakers.

One theory had him possibly sidelined by his wrist when the list had to be submitted last week, and another, juicier hypothesis had Jackson spoofing the league with his dry sense of humor.

Either way, the list is nonbinding -- Bryant’s name will be on a more updated roster submitted tonight by the Lakers an hour before tipoff.

Even a light, speculative newspaper item about the Lakers possibly talking to Washington in the future about All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas was met with a strong denial.

“I don’t normally comment on rumors, but there is no truth to this rumor,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld told the Washington Post. “We’ve never had any conversations with the Lakers or anyone else about Gilbert.”

Bryant, Jackson, and the Lakers are trying to push forward. “We still have some issues about our health,” Jackson said. “But we think we’re ready to play.”

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Scouting report

* 2006-07 record: 42-40, second in the Pacific Division.

* Coach: Phil Jackson, third season (919-393 in 16 seasons with Lakers and Chicago).

* Who’s gone: Smush Parker, Shammond Williams, Aaron McKie.

* Who’s new: Derek Fisher, Javaris Crittenton, Coby Karl.

* Projected starting lineup: Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Kwame Brown, Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf (until Lamar Odom returns from injury).

* Projected bench rotation: Maurice Evans, Jordan Farmar, Vladimir Radmanovic, Andrew Bynum, Brian Cook, Sasha Vujacic, Chris Mihm.

* Keys to the season: Unlike last season’s cushy schedule in the beginning, the Lakers tangle right away with a flurry of playoff-caliber teams. The Western Conference didn’t get any less competitive during the off-season, which makes a fast start imperative, although probably difficult, when considering Odom did not play one minute in exhibition games. It might come down to youth -- can Bynum, Farmar and Crittenton make enough of an impact, early and late in the season?

* Outlook: The Bryant situation continues to hang over the organization. The clouds will lift only if the team handily beats low-to-middling expectations. Making the playoffs is not a shoo-in, and if a journey to the second round doesn’t take place, look for another long summer . . . depending on who’s still around in the spring.

-- Mike Bresnahan

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Where they ranked

2006-07 REGULAR-SEASON STATISTICS

* Points per game...103.3 (5th)

* Opponents’ points...103.4 (25th)

* Field-goal percentage...46.6 (6th)

* Opponents field-goal percentage...46.1 (18th)

* 3-point field-goal percentage...35.3 (16th)

* Opponent’s 3-point percentage...35.8 (13th)

* Free-throw percentage...74.7 (18th)

* Assists per game...22.5 (6th)

Source: NBA.com


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