The finishing touches were being added to the turkey sandwich when the deli worker spoke.
“Are you the Laker coach?”
Mike Brown barely had time to answer before the follow-up was blurted out.
“How’s Dwight’s back?”
It’s what Brown faces day to day as the ego-less one revolving around the Lakers’ stars, the guy in charge of making sure a $100-million payroll doesn’t do a face plant.
The last two seasons were exactly that, with the Lakers fading badly and winning once in a combined nine games in the Western Conference semifinals.
At least the sandwich artist spared Brown another reminder, about the accompanying pressure on a coach with so many expensive new pieces on the roster.
Most Lakers followers see only one acceptable equation: Dwight Howard + Steve Nash + Kobe Bryant + Pau Gasol + Antawn Jamison = championship.
“People always ask, ‘Well, what about the pressure?’” Brown said Friday in an interview with The Times. “I’ll take this any day of the year as opposed to the pressure of trying to figure out how to get my guys going after we’ve lost 15 in a row.
“I’m not coaching just because I enjoy it or just because I enjoy being around the players. I’m coaching to win and all my decisions are going to be what’s best for the team and how we attain that goal.”
Brown, 42, doesn’t sound like a nervous guy heading into the second season of a four-year, $18-million deal. Training camp begins Tuesday and the Lakers’ opener is Oct. 30 against Dallas.
The expectations are enormous again around here, apparently written in indelible ink that the Lakers will get their revenge against Oklahoma City in the West and blast Miami in the NBA Finals.
Brown holds up his hand, though, and points to a similar time when a championship parade was supposed to work its way down Figueroa. Yep, the 2003-04 season has already come up in a conversation with Bryant.
“At the end of the day, he understands he was part of a team here in L.A. that had a young Kobe, a Shaquille [O’Neal] in his prime, Karl Malone at the end of his career and Gary Payton. And they had a nice supporting cast,” Brown said.
“They didn’t get it done. They didn’t win a championship like everybody thought they would when they put the team together. He knows it’s going to be a challenge and that we have to go get it.”
The Lakers lost meekly to Detroit in five games in the 2004 Finals.
To answer the earlier question, there’s no timetable for Howard’s return from surgery five months ago to repair a herniated disk in his back.
“He’s progressing fairly well,” Brown said. “He’s working out on the floor with some of our coaches. Every once in a while one of our coaches will play defense on him but he hasn’t got to the point where he’s playing five-on-five or four-on-four. I don’t want to rush him. Backs can be a tricky thing, especially this point in the season. I told him to take his time.”
Howard won’t be the only one learning on the fly when he returns. Brown is installing the Princeton offense, the backdoor, quick-cutting scheme that is markedly different from prototype NBA sets.
“For a lot of years, this team scored a lot in an offense that is not your traditional offense when it comes to the NBA game,” Brown said, referring to Phil Jackson’s triangle system. “When you look at the Princeton offense, the spacing is terrific, the body movement is terrific, the ability to make timely passes that lead to baskets is great. When you have a very intelligent team like we do, I think you can take advantage of people’s mistakes.”
Nash, however, has spent most of his career thriving in pick-and-roll situations. He would be allowed to create them if he felt the need, said Brown, who committed to the Princeton offense before the Lakers acquired Nash in July.
“He’s a guy that you can put the ball in his hands and tell him to create a play,” Brown said. “Chris Paul is a guy that you can put the ball in his hands and tell him the same thing. Pau Gasol and Metta [World Peace] are great decision-makers but they’re not necessarily going to break their defender down and drop the ball off to Kobe for a wide-open shot. But because they’re intelligent they can break down the defense if they’re put in situations to make plays. There were just a lot of advantages of going to this system.”
Gasol averaged a career-low 17.4 points last season. He then tumbled to only 12.5 points a game in the playoffs.
“He went through a tough season,” Brown said. “It seems like every time somebody wants to think of a trade, they throw Pau’s name in there. Maybe that should be flattering instead of bothersome. He had a terrific Olympics and I imagine he’s got to come back feeling pretty good knowing he could still be part of something special.”
Brown even had kind words for World Peace, whose 2011-12 season was remarkable for all the wrong reasons.
“Metta looks real good,” Brown said. “His body, his attitude, everything about him is in a really good place. The way he’s been shooting the ball, the way he’s been defending, the way he’s been handling the ball, all those little aspects of his game have been off the charts in pickup games.”
In the end, there’s still the weight of what’s supposed to happen this season after back-to-back playoff flame-outs.
“We all have to respect the fact that the Oklahoma City Thunder were the Western Conference champions. Excuse me, they are the Western Conference champions,” Brown said. “And the Miami Heat are the NBA champions.
“Everybody can talk all they want to talk, which is good, because it’s great to have that buzz in town, but we have to go through them if we expect to go anywhere because they are the guys on top right now. We’re looking up to them, or whatever you want to call it.”