LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com/AP) — Kobe Bryant has spent half of his life in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, and he’s not comfortable sitting on the sideline while his teammates play without him.
Yet Bryant’s health is just one concern surrounding the Lakers as they begin a season of profound transition.
Dwight Howard’s decision to take less money to sign with Houston last July removed a cornerstone of the Lakers’ rebuilding plan and put their short-term future into flux. Bryant’s torn Achilles tendon last April also left Los Angeles, who was swept in the first round of playoffs in 2013, without its top player for the short term, with no firm idea when he’ll return.
Pau Gasol and Steve Nash will attempt to hold the team together until Bryant is back to something close to full strength.
“It’s really important for us to embrace these low expectations, try to find a chemistry and build ourselves into a team that has some confidence,” Nash said. “Let’s not talk about championships right now.”
The 16-time NBA champions are nobody’s pick for a title, even with a roster featuring three likely Hall of Fame players. But in transition, the current Lakers see opportunity.
Coach Mike D’Antoni is hoping the Lakers’ new roster is more suited to his style of play. Several free-agent signees — Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Chris Kaman, Jordan Farmar, Shawne Williams — are hoping to play their way into a long-term job after burning out with other franchises.
“We may not be as talented at the top like last year, but I think we got younger, more athletic with more shooters who can space the floor,” Nash said. “I think it looks as though we’ve gone from a favorite to being a non-contender, (but) we’ve still got the opportunity to build a really great team if we can find a way to play that can be really successful.”
Here are five reasons to watch the Lakers’ season of transition:
PAU UNDER PRESSURE: With Andrew Bynum and Howard elsewhere, Gasol is the Lakers’ man in the middle again. If he proves he’s still an elite NBA center, he might be able to keep the Lakers in playoff contention — and he’ll earn a major contract when his current deal expires in the summer. “I don’t look at this as the last ride, but you never know,” Gasol said. “I’ve learned to live my life on a daily basis and try to have fun in the process.”
OLD MAN NASH: The 39-year-old Canadian point guard is the NBA’s oldest player this season, a distinction that doesn’t exactly thrill him. The two-time MVP thinks he’s still got plenty of fuel to challenge the league’s best at his position, and while Bryant is out, he doesn’t have to give up his favored role as the D’Antoni offense’s primary facilitator. If Nash stays healthy and demonstrates he’s still one of the best point guards in NBA history, the Lakers will be better — and more interesting.
LOCK IT DOWN: D’Antoni’s teams have never been known for their shutdown defense, and that’s unlikely to change much this season. Howard’s shot-blocking presence was maybe his biggest contribution to last season’s Lakers, and Bynum was an elite defensive player before his departure. Gasol and Kaman probably can’t match them. They’ve also lost Metta World Peace, whose defensive reputation and pure toughness sometimes outstripped his actual contributions on that end of the court. The Lakers must establish a new defensive identity, particularly if they’re unable to outscore teams on pure offensive talent.
HOMECOMING SEASON: The Lakers brought in reinforcements from their glorious past to encourage optimism for the future. D’Antoni added former Lakers players Kurt Rambis and Mark Madsen while overhauling his coaching staff with two respected, veteran voices. Los Angeles also re-signed Farmar, a backup point guard on the Lakers’ two most recent championship teams. He left to spend time with the Nets and in Turkey before returning to compete for playing time with Steve Blake, giving D’Antoni two solid options behind Nash.
WAIT `TIL NEXT YEAR: Lakers fans aren’t used to losing. After all, their team has missed the playoffs just once in Bryant’s career. But while they serenade D’Antoni with chants of “We Want Phil!” and boo the Lakers’ likely struggles this winter, the savvier fans will remember the Lakers have oodles of cap space and a pick in one of the deepest drafts in recent NBA history. Sure, it’s likely to be a difficult season for Hollywood’s team. But the sequel prospects are tantalizing.
(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)