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Lakers excited about title defense

Kobe Bryant hasn't signed a contract extension, but that appears to be a minor concern for a team favored to win another championship.

September 30, 2009|Mike Bresnahan

The Lakers arrived at their annual media day in much better shape than a year ago, when a humbling NBA Finals loss to Boston left them unsure of themselves, much less their future.

There were no such issues Tuesday, with smiles in plentiful supply and the word "excited" used as often as it could in a two-hour session.

The Lakers hadn't congregated since their championship parade snaked its way from Staples Center to the Coliseum, where their season-long efforts were rewarded with an ear-splitting ovation at a packed stadium.

To a man, they seemed happy to be back, which wasn't surprising: They're favored to win another championship, despite what Cleveland, Boston, San Antonio and Orlando did during the off-season.

The one minor glitch Tuesday -- Kobe Bryant still hasn't signed a contract extension -- wasn't a central issue, even though Bryant declined to answer questions about it.

Informal negotiations have already begun, and the Lakers are secure in their belief that a new deal will be signed. For now, Bryant is under contract this season for $23 million and next season for $24.8 million. He can become a free agent by opting out next July, an unlikely possibility because of the expected success of the Lakers and the unpredictable NBA economic climate, where there might not be enough palatable offers for a player scheduled to earn as much as Bryant in the 2010-11 season.

At any rate, Bryant was beaming as he moved from station to station Tuesday at the team training facility, giving radio interviews, posing for photos and looking into TV cameras as he read public-service announcements. He even donned a giant blue foam finger at one point and exclaimed, "Let's go Dodgers."

The Finals MVP also smiled as he shared a private word with Ron Artest in a photo op where they were supposed to look tough.

It will be interesting to see how they co-exist on the court after a couple of in-your-face encounters in last season's playoffs, though Artest wore a Bryant jersey at a recent promotional event and Tuesday seemed to revel in the concept of being part of the Lakers.

"None of them know how hungry I am," Artest said. "It's about time to get to business."

As usual, there were revelations on media day, starting with the fact that center Andrew Bynum probably would wear knee braces the rest of his career, mainly as a precaution. He sustained a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee last season and a briefly dislocated left knee in January 2008.

The right knee cost him 32 games last season, though Bynum said he was 100% healthy, that the ligament had healed after a summer of rest and rehabilitation. "I've got to wear a brace, though, for the rest of the time I play. That's the only bad news," he said. "The good news is it's all fine, no pain. It's just protection."

Bynum, who will be 22 next month, spent part of his off-season traveling through Japan, China, Italy and Spain.

He also spent about six weeks in Atlanta, working out with a personal trainer. He added strength to his legs during a regimen that concentrated on his quadriceps, hamstrings and "glutes," as he put it.

Bryant, for his part, took a solid two-month break from basketball, his first summer in years without Team USA obligations. He made several appearances throughout China and Asia as part of a Nike commitment, and he went to France with his family.

"All I did was get healthier," he said.

Bryant turned 31 last month and will soon begin his 14th NBA season with what he said were "rejuvenated" legs.

While Bryant rested, Pau Gasol, a third-team All-NBA selection last season, took part in a victorious but time-consuming tour with Spain's national team, which won the European championship.

Gasol suffered a broken index finger on his left hand while playing overseas but went on to be the most valuable player of the European tournament and will not miss any time with the Lakers.

"I'm excited, I'm really motivated. I'm not too tired," he said. "It's a lot of basketball, absolutely, but I think that my passion for the game and also me working on my body and trying to get my breaks here and there. . . . I hope that my body continues to hold up and continues to perform the way it's been performing."

Sasha Vujacic, who sustained a minor knee injury while playing an exhibition game with the Slovenian national team, also was expected to take part in training camp. Practice began Tuesday night and two-a-days were scheduled to begin today.

Among the other story lines at media day was the mildly impatient Lamar Odom, who married reality-TV star Khloe Kardashian on Sunday, had a publicist tell reporters he wouldn't talk about it Tuesday and then walked away after realizing reporters only wanted to talk about it. He later met up with a smaller group of media to answer basketball-related questions.

Above all, there was talk of a repeat championship feat.

"We're going to be ready to go," Bryant said. "We understand the challenge of winning another [championship]. I'm just going to do what I did last year. I just feel like I'm healthier and stronger."

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan

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