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NBA PREVIEW / LAKERS: IT BEARS THREE-PEATING

The Pane Threshold

This Lakers season is about legacies, but with an aging nucleus, and a lockout looming, their championship window may be closing soon

October 26, 2010|Mike Bresnahan

An entire summer came and went since city workers swept the streets after a championship celebration, a city exhaling after the Lakers overcame Kobe Bryant's six-for-24 shooting effort and the Boston Celtics in Game 7 on a night that would remain one of the tensest in team history.

Now there are other ghosts for the Lakers to chase, many of them wearing green and another wearing No. 23 as a new season begins at home Tuesday night against Houston, when championship rings will be handed out but only with an eye on doing it again a year from now.

The Lakers have won 16 championships, one behind their hated rivals in Boston, and Kobe Bryant is one ring short of Michael Jordan's six, a pair of themes to serve as the backdrop throughout the season.

Bryant hates to talk about catching Jordan, so others do it for him.

"Without a doubt, I know he'd love to do that. It just all goes into that big picture," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said during a quiet moment on an otherwise bustling Monday at the Lakers' training facility.

Even Ron Artest, who has logged exactly one season with the Lakers, understands the importance of this season.

"I probably won't speak of this anymore," he said, "but it's a crucial season for a lot of legacies."

Jackson knows all about the greater context, having coached Chicago to six titles, the Lakers to five. Now 65, he has already called this season his "last stand," apparently headed for greener pastures in Montana after he spends the next eight months trying to complete a "three-peat" for a never-been-done fourth time for an NBA coach.

Jackson lives in the moment, part of his Zen-based philosophy, but he smiles at the possibilities in the future.

"Maybe one of the reasons I came back was it just seemed too difficult to walk away from something that has this many 'firsts,' " he said.

Weighing against the Lakers is their advancing age and, further down the line, an owners' lockout that could wipe away most or all of next season. In other words, the time is now, with nine of their 14 players 30 or older, making the Lakers' window of opportunity smaller than the under-30 trio of the Miami Heat and the staggeringly young under-25 nucleus in Oklahoma City.

After the Lakers beat Boston in the NBA Finals in June, the partying lasted for days, even weeks, and then the surgeries began.

Andrew Bynum, their only starter under 30, won't be back until around Thanksgiving because of knee surgery, and Bryant is still recovering from his own off-season procedure, the third on his right knee.

Bryant didn't look healthy in exhibition play, shooting only 28.2% and averaging 12.6 points as the Lakers went 4-4.

He is tired of answering questions about his knee, and his lack of outside touch so far, usually offering one or two words in response to questions on the topics, but the Lakers have almost two months to regenerate, thanks to a schedule with 20 of the first 28 games against non-playoff teams from last season.

In fact, is there anything of national prominence for the Lakers before a Dec. 25 home game against Miami? Only if road games against Utah, Denver and Houston get anybody excited.

And yet, this season is all about the Lakers' managing hyperbole, looking away from the beasts of the Eastern Conference until early June and avoiding any pitfalls in the West, which they are heavily favored to win. (One reporter's questions at Monday's interview sessions all kept to the same premise: "So, uh, who's the second-best team in the West?")

Then again, the Lakers themselves have been feeding the hype machine, starting from the top.

"As of now, I feel like there's a good chance this could be the best team we've ever had," team owner Jerry Buss said in August.

The Lakers again have the highest payroll in the league, $95.6 million, not to mention luxury taxes that currently project to an additional $25.3 million.

It's a huge tab, and if Buss expects a lot out of it, he's not alone.

It just might take awhile to get there.

Lakers coaches have been all over Pau Gasol, who did the opposite of Lamar Odom, choosing off-season relaxation after deciding against playing summer basketball for his national team.

In between cracks from Jackson, wondering whether the 7-footer was still on vacation, Gasol shot only 46.5% in exhibition play, causing Jackson and assistant coach Brian Shaw to wonder aloud whether the three-time All-Star would be ready soon, a necessary ingredient as the Lakers start their title defense without Bynum.

Artest, on the other hand, had a solid exhibition season, and Odom was as fit as ever for training camp after a shining performance with Team USA, including a few games at center to help win the gold medal at last month's world championships in Turkey.

The Lakers' reserves appear to be better than last season, with veterans Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, Theo Ratliff and versatile rookie Devin Ebanks presumably adding more depth than the departed Adam Morrison, Josh Powell, Jordan Farmar and DJ Mbenga.

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