Exactly one week ago, the Lakers officially saw what a media circus will surround this year’s team.
Throngs of reporters swamped the Lakers’ practice facility on media day, fighting for every inch of space once Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace stepped on the floor. Optimism surrounding the Lakers’ immense talent led many to believe they’re inevitably on their way to hosting a championship parade in about nine months’ time. Others believe this just marks the beginning of another hastily arranged Super Team destined to self-destruct.
That narrative remains unwritten. After all, the Lakers still have to play a whole season to prove that their talent on paper actually can translate into the organization’s 17th NBA championship. But as the Lakers enjoy a day off Monday for the first time since training camp started, it seems apparent that their mind-set truly involves respecting the process.
Sure, the Lakers always have things going on beyond basketball. Many of them attended Time Warner Cable SportsNet’s launch party on the eve of training camp. Following the Lakers’ preseason loss Sunday to Golden State in Fresno, Metta World Peace suggested he’s taking a short trip to Las Vegas with unnamed friends to make “Hangover 3.” Howard appears eager to share his Bryant impersonation.
But as far as the Lakers’ actual approach toward training camp? The players all agree that they’ve already laid down a strong foundation.
“It was pretty much there from the start,” Bryant said. “There was nothing really there that we had to adjust to.”
Of course, part of that involves the personnel. It’s easier to learn new concepts when you have one of the league’s top scorers (Bryant), top passers (Nash), top post players (Howard, Gasol) and top defenders (World Peace). It sure trumps last year’s experience in which the Lakers’ newcomers included Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy and Jason Kapono while losing Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown.
That became apparent in the preseason opener. Nash’s cross-court pass to Bryant in one sequence and a crossover against a stumbling Jarrett Jack on another led the “Black Mamba” to describe the plays as “awesome " and “ridiculous.”
But the players’ mind-set also matters. The starting lineup seemed unstoppable not just because they’re talented but because they wanted to run the offense correctly.
Nash wasn’t the only one showing teamwork. Bryant threaded the needle on a pick-and-roll sequence with Gasol that gave him an open jumper. World Peace scored 10 points on three-of-six shooting because of better balance, better shot selection and better conditioning. Gasol, who often looked mentally drained last season with the trade rumors and reduced role, suddenly looked energized and scored nine points on a four-of-seven clip, which featured a series of hooks, post-ups and jumpers. Bryant’s 10 points on two-of-seven shooting didn’t feature much accuracy, but he looked more fluid and efficient working off the ball, a dynamic he described as “real natural” and “easy.”
Coach Mike Brown said the starting unit made rookie Robert Sacre look as if he had played two or three NBA seasons already as he posted six points on two-of-three shooting and two rebounds as the starting center in place of Howard, who’s still rehabbing his back.
“The great thing about all this is these guys are good guys,” Brown said. “I truly believe they all want to win a championship.”
The Lakers fell short of that goal last season partly because of the circumstances surrounding their lockout-shortened campaign. In addition to dealing with lesser talent, Brown entered his first season navigating a confusing maze. He had a two-week window to teach his concepts, establish ownership with the team and know the personnel. This season, Brown and assistant Eddie Jordan spent the first week teaching about 20% of his offensive plays that involve elements of the Princeton system and pick-and-roll concepts he used last season.
On top of that, the Lakers have brought a mature mind-set.
Bryant immediately proclaimed it’s “his team” but sounds willing to take a less-is-more approach with his game. Howard’s progress in practice scrimmages confirm the Lakers’ thinking that his back injury won’t sideline him for long. Gasol’s fluid passing, including a touch pass that set up Howard’s dunk in one recent practice, provided a glimpse on how his versatile playmaking should mesh well in a system predicated on reads. World Peace’s superior conditioning already shows he’ll be even better at defending scorers. Nash’s court vision has already minimized any learning curve he’ll encounter with adjusting to teammates’ tendencies.
“You have to spend time on the court to get any chemistry,” Nash said. “The week of practice helped add some familiarity for us out there. We were able to find some cohesion.”
Of course, the Lakers still have more to iron out.
Brown may have expressed little concern about Golden State scoring 28 unanswered points in the third quarter since he tried varying bench combinations with players who may not even make the roster. But he sounded displeased with the Lakers gambling too much on transition defense. It seems difficult to predict how many games it will take for Howard to feel fully comfortable after not playing in an actual contest for the past six months.
Brown also showed some hesitation in taking ownership of the new offense and predicted it wouldn’t fully unfold until December or January.
“At the end of the year, if we’re in the top five offensively, we’ll call it Brown’s offense,” Brown said. “If we’re in the bottom five, we’ll call it Jordan’s offense.”
For now, though, the Lakers have built a solid foundation with more practice time, better players and a better system. That could prepare them for any tough times ahead.
“You’re going to have ups and downs throughout the course of the journey,” Brown said. “But it’s all about how we handle the ups and how we handle the downs that will determine whether or not we reach our goal at the end of the year. We have guys who understand that and are capable of doing it. That’s what makes this thing exciting.”
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