Lakers’ ride to title defense already looks like E! ticket


So much for the Lakers’ post-soap opera phase.

Last season was pretty exciting with the team winning a title, but, as their fans can tell you, it still came up short on drama.

The franchise, which once featured a war of titans between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, was reduced to Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar, who were more like first-graders who wouldn’t share.

Happily, or not, entertainment value is once more not an issue as the team opens camp this week with everyone wondering how the newest member of the Lakers Family will fit in.


No, not Ron Artest. Khloe Kardashian, who’s expected to become Khloe Kardashian Odom this weekend.

(The Clippers also open camp with prize rookie Blake Griffin and the best roster, by far, in their history. Not that many people want to hear about them after last season’s March of the Zombies, so anything they do will be a surprise . . . which they’re actually good enough to pull off.)

Of course, with the Lakers’ What-Me-Worry coach, not even Lamar Odom’s marriage to a star of an ongoing TV reality series poses a major problem. This is good for them, because en route to last season’s title, they demonstrated that they already had enough to work on with focus, consistency or whatever polite word you prefer for a team that didn’t always play hard.

Who can forget the day when they beat the Yao Ming-less Houston Rockets in Game 7 here, and Kobe Bryant, asked what he’d learned about his team, answered:

“We’re bipolar.”

That was the day Trevor Ariza said, “We were stubborn. We thought we could win on sheer talent” . . . and Farmar and Vujacic got into a spat on the bench during the fourth quarter.

For Phil Jackson, this was nothing. Jackson coached Shaq and Kobe in the days he had to hold them apart, or trust that someone would. In Chicago, he had Dennis Rodman and Bison Dele, in the halcyon days when a Saudi crown prince was denied entrance to the dressing room to meet Michael Jordan in Washington, and a Bulls official said, “There’s a crown prince in every city.”

No NBA coach has repeated as many times as Jackson, whose Bulls teams won four titles in his five defenses -- the only miss came with Jordan off playing baseball in 1994 -- and whose Lakers went two for three, for a grand total of six of eight.

So, yes, Jackson thinks this Lakers team can repeat too, and, no, it doesn’t get easier.

“I’ve been telling them [this players] that it’s always harder to do it twice,” Jackson said last week. “It’s a challenge physically, it’s a challenge mentally because everybody’s prepared for you, and you’re coming off a long season.

“You’ve done extraneous things [Editor’s note: such as Pau Gasol’s playing for Spain in the recently concluded European tournament] and the drive’s not there. But we are perfectly capable of doing this again.”

In the good, or bad, news for the Lakers, they won last season’s title at about 7.5 on a scale of 10, as far as realizing their potential.

With Andrew Bynum a minor factor, unable to recover his form of January when he was hurt, Jackson went with the Gasol-Odom tandem the Celtics had bounced around the previous spring. This time, against Orlando, it was good enough.

Bynum, who had averaged 14.1 points and 8.0 rebounds, was at six and four in the playoffs. If he goes back to last season’s numbers, the Lakers go from good to great; if he goes up from there, they can be dominating.

On the other hand, Bynum, whose first three seasons were one long growth spurt, copped his first attitude when he was benched last spring. With Jackson happy to go to Odom as soon as Bynum gives him a reason to, Bynum will have to put up or shut up.

Speaking of putting up . . .

After the injuries, defections, et al., that ended the local careers of Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Sam Cassell and Shaun Livingston, the Clippers thought they had seen it all, only to see last season turn into a debacle, even for them.

Baron Davis arrived out of shape with his nose out of joint. With a few notable exceptions, such as Eric Gordon, Marcus Camby and Al Thornton, their key guys mailed in the whole season.

Now the entire franchise is on the spot, starting with Davis, Chris Kaman and, last but not least, Coach Mike Dunleavy, who would have been fired two years ago, except for his $5.4-million-a-year contract, which has this season and next left.

The contract actually gave them unprecedented managerial stability, allowing Dunleavy, who runs the basketball operation, the chance to dig himself out. With one lucky break, getting the top pick that handed them Griffin, they have turned the entire situation around -- personnel-wise, at least. Now, there remains the little matter of doing it.

“I think we’re an afterthought,” Dunleavy said, putting it lightly. “I don’t think people respect us. It was that way when I got here [in 2003]. Then we had some success, but now it’s like that again.”

It could be some exciting season.

Having missed the Kardashian Kids’ saga to this point, I went on E! Online, which featured video of the episode in which Kim uses her hand-held to hack into the voice mail of Khloe’s (now former) boyfriend, Rashad McCants, the NBA guard now with Houston.

Sure enough, McCants has more women on the line. As their affectionate messages come over Kim’s speakerphone, Khloe leaves the room in tears.

Don’t miss the episode in which the Lakers go on their first road trip.