What an understatement it is to say what a difference a year makes, a simple observation that would fail miserably in recapping everything the Lakers faced when last season’s training camp began in Hawaii 362 days ago.
Andrew Bynum was drifting far outside the NBA ring of relevancy, Phil Jackson was hobbling around with a cane, and Kobe Bryant was circling awkwardly above it all, neither he nor his teammates knowing what would unfold the rest of the way -- or even if he would still be a Laker when the regular season rolled around.
Of course, it all turned out pretty well for the Lakers, give or take a couple of losses in the NBA Finals, leading to a decidedly sunnier sum of players at the team’s annual media day Monday in El Segundo.
Bryant was again trailed by a flood of reporters as he recorded promo after promo for the Lakers’ TV and radio partners, but the media mob didn’t exude the breathless “When is he leaving town?” tenor of a year ago.
Instead, Bryant was jovial, buoyant, even eager to discuss his thoughts on the Lakers as they begin preparations today for the upcoming season, Bryant’s 13th with the team.
“There’s a lot to be happy about, there’s a lot to be thankful about,” he said. “Andrew’s back healthy, you’ve got Pau [Gasol] here, we’ve got Lamar [Odom] here. Everybody’s here, D-Fish [Derek Fisher], everybody’s ready to go. The key for us is to keep everybody healthy.”
Bryant, Gasol and a healthy Bynum are the main reasons the Lakers are favored to win the Western Conference, if not the championship. Without Bynum, the Lakers were within two victories of the franchise’s 15th title, and they return with a skilled blend of youth, size and experience.
Bryant, who turned 30 last month, is back after winning his first most-valuable-player award, and the gift-wrapped Gasol has three more years on his contract.
“We’re the favorites for a reason,” Bryant said. “That’s one of the things I tell the guys . . . we’ve got all the tools here, we’ve got all the pieces to the puzzle, now it’s on us to do the work. If we do the work, we should win it.”
These being the Lakers, for whom championship-caliber seasons rarely come and go without a least a little baggage, there are a few lingering issues.
Odom wasn’t overjoyed to hear he might come off the bench if Jackson’s plan of a Bynum-Odom-Gasol front line doesn’t meet expectations.
Entering the last year of a contract that pays him $14.1 million this season, Odom didn’t like the idea of being a sixth man in favor of Trevor Ariza, a possibility trotted out last week by Jackson.
“He must have woke up and bumped his head. He probably hit his head on something -- boom,” Odom said of Jackson. “To start off like that, you’ve got to be out of your . . . mind.”
Odom did not think he would lose his starting spot to Ariza, but, if it happened, well, you know . . .
“Everybody knows on my team I’ll do whatever for the team,” Odom said. “If you want me to be the mascot, whatever you want me to be. I’ll be the doormat, the rug, whatever you want me to be.”
Jackson said he would give Bynum-Odom-Gasol time to mesh but would persuade Odom to come off the bench if the tall-but-perhaps-too-slow frontcourt didn’t work out.
Bynum, who turns 21 on Oct. 27, is also entering the final year of his contract. He still has to prove his health, and his worth, as he tries to come back from a knee injury.
Bynum and the Lakers have until Oct. 31 to agree on a five-year extension of up to about $88 million, or he becomes a restricted free agent after the season, with the Lakers able to match any offer sheet.
“It’s not a concern of mine at all,” Bynum said. “That’s business. My agent takes care of it. What I’ve got to do is play well and make people believe that I’m the great player I’m supposed to be.”
Bynum, who will make $2.8 million this season, averaged 17.3 points and 12.2 rebounds in six games in January before being sidelined because of a bone bruise in his left knee and brief dislocation of the kneecap. For the season he averaged 13.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots.
He says he feels no effects from the injury -- “The knee is fine, definitely 100%" -- and he is enthralled by the idea of playing next to Gasol, who will slide over to his more natural position of power forward after playing center for 48 games with the Lakers.
“I’m super excited,” Bynum said. “I think we’re definitely highly compatible players. We’ll be able to pass the ball back and forth between one another.”
With Bynum back, the Lakers automatically add a physical dimension that was lacking in last season’s Finals flameout against Boston.
The way Bryant sees it, complacency is the only factor other than injuries that could prevent the Lakers from enjoying a lengthy postseason.
“The Western Conference is just brutal and it’s getting worse this year with Portland emerging,” Bryant said. “I think [complacency] is a pitfall for us. I think that’s something we’ll have to be conscious of.”
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