Lakers know what it will take to repeat as champions
The Lakers were minutes away from an exhibition victory over the Sacramento Kings in Las Vegas, the city where anything goes, even if it includes an inebriated Lakers fan with a beer cup in hand, trying earnestly to strike up a conversation with Ron Artest by tapping his shoulder from behind the bench and repeatedly shouting his name.
Shortly thereafter, another fan approached another member of the Lakers in a corner near the team bench.
This time, there were no signs of intoxication as the fan looked General Manager Mitch Kupchak in the eye.
“Great job, sir,” said the fan, extending his hand. “Great job.”
It’s been a long, now successful ride for Kupchak, who used to have a photo of a great white shark in his office, a reminder of the ever-present media and Lakers fan base waiting to scrutinize his every move, none more so than the high-profile Shaquille O’Neal trade in July 2004.
But the Lakers are back, obviously, wiping away a seven-year championship drought by erasing Orlando with ease in the NBA Finals a little more than four months ago.
Kupchak had all of 11 days to enjoy it before the NBA draft took place, followed by a long, protracted free-agency period highlighted by the prickly negotiations to re-sign forward Lamar Odom.
But don’t feel too bad for Kupchak. He has definitely found time to reflect on what the team accomplished last season.
“It’s not something that goes away,” he said. “It’s something you can enjoy the rest of your life.”
This season, which begins Tuesday when the Lakers play host to the Clippers, could be another enjoyable one for him.
The Lakers lost Trevor Ariza but added Ron Artest and kept Odom, making them the top choice once again to win it all.
“I think our biggest concern, as with most teams in the NBA that have a chance to contend, is staying healthy,” Kupchak said. “Our coach knows how to handle the throttle for players in a 110-game season. I’m not that concerned with complacency or this team getting cocky. We have pretty good leadership and I wouldn’t call that a major concern. I think staying injury-free would be first and foremost our best shot to repeat.”
The Lakers were lucky last season, with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher and Odom missing a total of only six games. Andrew Bynum was a different story, missing 32 and never factoring into their playoff drive. He was one of two players watched closely by Kupchak in exhibition play.
“The last few seasons, Andrew had great training camps,” Kupchak said. “I’m most excited about another great training camp and him playing a full season. And, of course, watching Ron Artest’s development as the season progresses. I really believe Ron wants to win and wants to fit in, and he’s done everything possible to do that.”
Before the regular season begins Tuesday, the Lakers will take one more trip to the memories of last season. The championship ring ceremony, scheduled to start at 7:15 p.m., will be memorable for Kupchak. He’ll apparently be taking home a very big piece of jewelry.
“The boxes will be a lot heavier,” he said. “I’ve had a chance to preview the rings, and the box is going to be heavier and a little bigger than past boxes.”
It can mean only one thing.
“A lot of bling,” he said.
Gasol a no-go?
Gasol did not practice Sunday, isn’t planning on practicing today and probably won’t play Tuesday, if the body language and overall uncertainty over his strained right hamstring is to be interpreted correctly.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for me to play on Tuesday,” said Gasol, who sat out the Lakers’ last six exhibition games because of the injury.
Gasol worked out on an elliptical machine Sunday, the extent of the physical activity for the player who averaged 18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds last season. He would be replaced by Odom in the starting lineup.
“He still doesn’t feel comfortable on it,” said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who was already looking past the opener. “We have three days in between our first game and our second one. If worse comes to worst, we’ve got a really good replacement for him.”
Bynum, on the other hand, practiced Sunday after sitting out two exhibition games because of a strained rotator cuff and sore left hamstring. He said he would “play for sure” Tuesday.