LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant won three NBA championships on Los Angeles Lakers teams with Shaquille O’Neal. The 2003-04 Lakers also had a talent-heavy roster that included Bryant, O’Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, even though they lost in the NBA Finals. And Bryant’s last two titles came with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum by his side.
Yet, Bryant now looks around at his current teammates – a star-filled group that includes Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash – and calls this season's Lakers his most talented supporting cast ever.
"On its face, it’s the best talent I’ve been around," Bryant said. "Whether that translates into winning a championship remains to be seen. But just on paper you’re talking Defensive Player of the Years, MVPs, All-Stars. You’re talking about a myriad of things. Guys who are at the top of their position at one point or another. It’s pretty dope."
One thing is for certain: After acquiring Howard and Nash in the offseason, these Lakers won't lack for attention. More than 300 media members attended the opening of the Lakers' camp, overwhelming the air conditioning at the team's practice facility. Excited Lakers fans peered over a fence in the morning prior to the start of media day hoping to get a glimpse of anyone in gold and purple.
"For me, my expectations are to prepare to play, to improve, perform and build a team," Nash said. "When you’re concentrating on that, you don’t focus on what other people’s expectations are. You set your own standard. You set your own expectations. You try to live up to those every day."
Howard's only NBA Finals trip was a loss to the Lakers in 2009, and his recovery from back surgery could determine with L.A. is able to make a title run with him. Lakers coach Mike Brown said Howard is in great shape and has been playing one-on-one with assistant coaches Darvin Ham and Chuck Person. Brown, however, was uncertain as to when Howard would be cleared to scrimmage. The Lakers begin practice Tuesday with Howard expected to participate in a fashion dictated by how his body feels, Brown said.
"I want him to take his time. But at the same time, I’m not a doctor. It’s up to the training staff," Brown said.
Gasol said he will start at center in Howard’s absence while Jordan Hill is expected to start at power forward. Antawn Jamison will likely come off the bench. Howard, however, didn't rule out playing opening night.
"It’s a goal, but I’m not rushing it," Howard said. "Everybody wants me to play on opening night. But we are not going to rush it."
Another big question hanging over Howard: Can he play well with Bryant?
Bryant and Howard say they are on the same page and will do what is needed to succeed. Bryant is still the Lakers' top option offensively, but Howard will certainly want his touches in the post.
"It’s my team," Bryant said. "But I want to make sure that Dwight knows that when I retire this is going to be his. I want to teach him everything I possibly know so this organization can ride as if I never left."
Nash will be tasked with trying to keep both players happy.
"They both feel very blessed to play with each other," Nash said. "Kobe, especially at this stage of his career, has an unlimited amount of appreciation to have a center of Dwight's ability that can control and run the floor. For Dwight, it's a pleasure to play with someone who can take the pressure off of him, who can create his own shot, take the shot at the end of the game. Dwight can concentrate on being a center that just racks up big numbers and makes it difficult for the other team and rely on Kobe to do all the finishing."
There's no denying the hype surrounding the Lakers. Time will tell if the Lakers can live up to it.
"Everybody here expects us to get it done or to be one of the teams that is playing into June," Bryant said.
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