The meeting between Coach Mike Brown and All-Star guard Kobe Bryant would mark an important breakthrough in defining their relationship.
Bryant had remained quiet about Brown's hire as Phil Jackson's replacement since the front office didn't alert him beforehand. Brown arrived in Los Angeles to a throng of skeptics, and he needed to make sure Bryant wasn't one of them. And the meeting, set at a golf course in Orange County, reconfirmed what drives Bryant in his 16th season as he stressed the desire to win a sixth NBA title.
"That was the first thing he mentioned to me when we met," Brown said. "He's done it in the beginning, middle and lately. He wants that sixth ring. That's what he plays for, he plays for championships."
Well, duh, you could say. But in case you didn't know that already, Bryant reminded reporters after Saturday's practice at the team's facility in El Segundo. "That's the only reason why we play," he said.
Yet, it remains to be seen whether that's actually realistic as the Lakers host the Denver Nuggets beginning Sunday at Staples Center as the third-seeded team in their first-round series. The Lakers have experienced what Pau Gasol described as a "crazy year," and there's plenty of examples.
The Lakers experienced a cultural and system change from Jackson to Brown. The NBA nixed the Chris Paul deal. The aftermath left Lamar Odom demanding a trade, and Gasol requesting to stay. The Lakers soon tired of Brown's prolonged practices and film sessions. After hearing Gasol's name in trade rumors, Bryant demanded the front office provide clarity. Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak didn't. Magic Johnson suggested Jim Buss ran the team. The Lakers upgraded at point guard with Ramon Sessions, but they shipped longtime point guard Derek Fisher, who eventually signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Bryant and Andrew Bynum each received controversial benchings.
Amid all that drama, the Lakers still sit in third place in the West. Bryant finished second in the league in scoring (27.9 points a game). He rightfully touts the Lakers' size advantage in Bynum (first-time All-Star) and Gasol (equally dangerous mid-range shooter and post player). And the Lakers are still stewing over falling to the Dallas Mavericks last year in a Western Conference semifinals sweep.
"Everybody is counting us out, not to mention what happened to us last year," Lakers forward Matt Barnes said. "We have to come in ready to focus. We believe we have what it takes to win a championship. We just have to show everybody else that."
Still, Las Vegas oddsmakers have plenty of reason to tab the Lakers only as the fifth favorite to win the NBA championship. Lakers forward Metta World Peace will continue to serve a seven-game suspension for his elbow last week to the head of Okahoma City guard James Harden. Barnes currently nurses a sprained right ankle that he described as "sore." The Lakers' bench remains fourth to last in the league in efficiency. And in the last 10 games, the Lakers are actually the fourth-worst defensive team in the league, giving up 104 points a game.
Oh yeah, and the Lakers have hardly shown many signs that they have the speed and discipline to hang with Oklahoma City and San Antonio in a playoff series.
Yet, after spending his first season as Lakers coach looking at the team's 16 championship banners and a slew of Hall of Fame jerseys hanging in the Staples Center rafters, Brown wants a piece of the pie. He insists the high standards are no different than when he was in Cleveland. There, the Cavaliers fired him after five seasons despite compiling a 272-138 record, earning 2009 NBA coach of the year, an NBA Finals appearance and two Eastern Conference Finals appearances.
"We have a standard that we set for ourselves," Brown said. "That's to win 16 games. If we don't win 16 games, yes, we're going to be disappointed."
That leaves the Lakers in an awkward spot. They hardly sound satisfied just making the postseason after routinely having championship parades down Figuera Street in June. But the ongoing personnel changes and aging roster have left the championship window at least slightly closed. The Lakers still maintain they can slip through the crack, beginning with how they perform against Denver, a young and athletic team that will push the tempo while forcing turnovers with their active defense.
"It's the postseason and we need to go far," Bynum said. "L.A. expects us to do big things and we expect it of ourselves. So, the test is here. We need to win Game 1."