The Lakers won't be laughing if this is a common sight this season. (Reed Saxon / Associated…)
This issue has inhibited Dwight Howard from trying to play before he completely rehabs his back. It's compelled Kobe Bryant to suddenly rid himself of junk food. It's reminded Lakers Coach Mike Brown that his thirst for more practice time and comprehensive film sessions aren't always a good thing.
See, the Lakers have plenty of talent and experience to carry them to an NBA championship. They have elite scoring (Bryant), elite passing (Steve Nash), elite frontcourt production (Howard, Pau Gasol) and elite defense (Metta World Peace). But even during training camp, where optimism seems never-ending, the Lakers are acknowledging one significant variable that could derail their championship hopes.
"Injuries are always the big thing," Bryant said. "Those who are big-time Laker fans, that '89 season and the great team that they had and a couple injuries changed the dynamics of the Finals."
During the 1988-89 season, the Lakers finished first in the Pacific Division and entered the NBA Finals with an 11-0 playoff record. But that wasn't enough when they played the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals. Byron Scott tore his hamstring before the series began. Magic Johnson followed suit in Game 2. The Pistons eventually won in a four-game sweep.
"We just didn't give ourselves a chance to compete against Detroit," Johnson recalled last year.
The Lakers, who boast a starting lineup averaging 32.6 years in age, hope to prevent that fate by taking cautious measures. Bryant sat out of two practice sessions Oct. 5 after having a sore right foot. He also sat out of the the preseason game Wednesday against Portland because of a mild right shoulder injury that happened after dunking on Antawn Jamison in the previous day's practice. The Lakers have also taken no chances when injuries have popped up with Jordan Hill (herniated disk) and Earl Clark (strained left groin). Nash, 38, went through vigorous treatment this off-season to ensure that his back stays healthy.
Meanwhile, Howard has refused to set a benchmark on his return date, and will only play once his surgically repaired back feels 100%.
"Most injuries come when you're fatigued," said Howard, who had missed only seven games in his eight-year career before being diagnosed with a herniated disk last March. "So the biggest thing is to make sure you're in good shape."
Other Lakers have followed the same formula.
Bryant lost 16 pounds before the Olympics by refusing to eat junk food, in hopes a more mobile body will help him delay Father Time. World Peace entered training camp weighing 255 pounds after reporting 17 pounds heavier the previous season. After the 2012 Olympics and a UNICEF sponsored trip to the African nation of Chad, Gasol relaxed in his native Spain for a month.
Meanwhile, most of the bench players, including Jamison, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks and Devin Ebanks stayed heavily active in hopes their sharpened play would help give the starters well-needed rest through the season.
That gives Coach Mike Brown plenty to juggle.
"I have to make sure we condense practice and that we get things out of it that will help us become better," Brown said. "I don't want to keep them too long and wear them down."
That effort so far remains unclear.
Nash openly acknowledged that he's never experienced a three-hour shoot-around on a game day. But the Lakers did just that prior to their second preseason game last week against Portland. When Brown asked rookies Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris in front of a media scrum how long morning shoot-around lasted prior to the Lakers' game Saturday against Utah, Goudelock chimed in, 'about three hours."
"No," Brown said as he shook his head, laughing. "It was good today. About an hour-and-a-half. We got out at 11:30 a.m.
"Yep, all the vets were happy today."
Indeed, they were. Brown hasn't played his starters much beyond the first half in preseason games. He's only taught 30-35% of his system involving elements of the Princeton offense so his players don't come up against information overload. Brown has also given the team two days off through the first of training camp. After camp started in the lockout-shortened season on Dec. 9 2011, the Lakers didn't have a single day off until Dec. 28, after playing three games on consecutive nights.
"This is much better," World Peace said. "But I think we needed the practice last year. [Brown] was trying to introduce some things. He has a four-year contract, so he was trying to build some longevity. But he's doing a great job."
The Lakers, however, won't consider the end product a great job unless they're hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy. Should that happen, the Lakers most likely will have found ways to stay healthy.
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