The pain from losing still felt raw. The Lakers had just absorbed their second consecutive defeat in the Western Conference semifinals.
That's when Lakers forward Metta World Peace entered the locker room and addressed his teammates. It had nothing to do with the Lakers just falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games. It had everything to do with how the Lakers should address next season.
"Everybody get in shape now," Kobe Bryant recalled World Peace saying. "Get prepared now. I came out of shape last year. That won't happen next season."
Sure enough, World Peace, after reporting to last year's training camp at 268 pounds, showed up this season at 255.
Known for his colorful statements, World Peace at the Lakers' media day on Monday touted this year's team as both the "Care Bears" and "rock stars," proclaimed Steve Nash the team's smartest player because "he's white," and bragged about the talent on the Lakers' roster that includes Dwight Howard, Nash, Bryant and Pau Gasol: "We look good on paper, and paper cuts hurt."
However worded, World Peace hopes his message has gotten through to his teammates.
"When I said that, it was mainly to get guys focused on this season," World Peace. "This is the most important season."
At media day, every player repeated some sort of variation on the importance of understanding the process that a title pursuit entails. Even though Bryant proclaimed this is his team, he openly talked about passing the torch to Howard as the Lakers' next franchise player. Howard repeatedly emphasized that team chemistry would determine whether they fully maximize their potential. Nash acknowledged that figuring out the dynamic would take time.
"From the outside, it appears this is going to be a cinch," Nash said. "We have a bunch of big players and come together and win 60 something games and go in as a contender. But it's going to be a big challenge for us. So many personalities and so many dominant players to try to find a cohesion. It's going to be a big challenge for the players in accepting roles and sacrificing. It's going to be a challenge for coaches in having us find a way to play. And it's going to be a challenge for me."
In that respect, the Lakers may be more prepared than other so-called super teams. No one at media day boasted about "winning multiple championships" the same way Miami's LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did two years ago at a pep rally. The comparisons between this year's Lakers team and the 2003-04 squad that fell to Detroit in the NBA Finals seems a stretch considering Gary Payton and Karl Malone were at the tail end of their careers while Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal kept fighting. This year's team has complementary stars in Bryant's scoring, Nash's passing, an inside presence (Howard, Pau Gasol) and defense (World Peace). It's also telling that Lakers Coach Mike Brown held himself accountable by revamping his coaching staff, adding veteran voices in Bernie Bickerstaff and Eddie Jordan as key assistants.
But how will this year's Lakers back up their words with their play? To what degree will Nash strike a good balance between running the Princeton offense and pick-and-roll sets? How much will Bryant truly relish playing without the ball and possibly scoring less? How will Howard handle the endless scrutiny?
Gasol may be relieved he's no longer a trading chip, but will he play aggressively enough so he's not lost among a sea of other All-Stars? Will World Peace's strong conditioning also correlate with stronger focus? Will Antawn Jamison's scoring, Jodie Meeks' three-point shooting and Steve Blake's playmaking happen consistently enough so that the bench no longer remains a liability?
Mike Brown's preseason message centered on a humble theme.
"We talk about respecting your teammate and the grind and the process," Brown said. "We talked about respecting the journey overall. These guys have taken that to heart."
Still, nothing said on media day compares with the answers that will begin to emerge once this team begins to actually dribble, shoot and pass.
"On its face, it's the best talent I've been around," said Bryant, entering his 17th NBA season. "Whether that translates into winning a championship, that remains to be seen. But just on paper, you're obviously talking about defensive players of the years, MVPs, All-Stars. You're talking about a myriad of things where guys are on top of their position and have been at the top of their position."
Pau Gasol: 'New season .... New journey.'
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