x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Lots of leading men and few role players for Los Angeles Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers are Kobe Bryant's team, but with new acquisitions in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the spotlight and ball will have to be shared.

Kobe Bryant (24) will have to get used to newly acquired Steve Nash (10) being the Lakers' primary ball-handler this season.
Kobe Bryant (24) will have to get used to newly acquired Steve Nash (10) being the Lakers' primary ball-handler this season.

Kobe Bryant's head is barely perceptible as he sits in the Honda Centre locker room at Anaheim, California, just down the road from Disneyland.

Reporters several rows deep crowd around the Los Angeles Lakers star, eager for post-game insight.

Bryant does his best to assuage the media who follow the NBA's most relentlessly glamorous and, over the past three decades, most successful club.

The Lakers were boldy rebuilt this summer, and the plan is to march through the NBA season and secure a sixth championship in 15 years.

They added two huge pieces in another example of the high-risk, high-reward moves most teams would not dare to dream.

They secured the best centre in the game, Dwight Howard, after they had added the point guard extraordinaire, Steve Nash, a two-time league MVP.

All while keeping Bryant as their centrepiece, and Spain's outstanding Pau Gasol at forward.

It is a collection of highly compensated talent that probably should not be possible.

But these are the Lakers.

A few have suggested the rebuilt club might struggle, and the Lakers found themselves winless after seven exhibition games, a first in club history.

So the media surrounded Bryant after yet another loss, aghast that the star-studded Lakers could be 0-7 in Games That Don't Matter.

Bryant sighs, smiles, slightly shakes his head. He advises calm and a vision that extends until next June.

"We're going to be fine," he says. "NBA titles aren't won in the pre-season."

In Lakers-crazed Los Angeles, the goal is nothing less than another championship.

"It's unscripted and there's a lot of anticipation," concedes Mitch Kupchak, the general manager and architect of the team.

"Our second pre-season game at Staples Centre was on a Sunday night. It sold out and the fans stood the whole fourth quarter. I had never seen that before in a pre-season game. So, clearly, there's a lot of excitement and anticipation. Everybody is waiting for the first game to see how the team progresses."

The Lakers open their season Tuesday at Dallas against the Mavericks, and despite lofty expectations most rational supporters expect it will take some time for the new Lakers to mesh, especially as Howard continues to recover from April back surgery.

Not that Bryant expresses any concern about new players and new roles.

"How many minutes are we going to play together in the pre-season anyway? We'd probably play, like, 25 minutes together," he says.

"We're doing that in practice on a daily basis. You're getting pretty much the same thing without wearing guys out."

That they are even in position to worry about absorbing Howard and Nash into their line-up is remarkable. Last season the Lakers were pushed to seven games before ousting the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the play-offs. Then they were KO'd by the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games.

A second-round play-offs exit is not acceptable to the Lakers - the franchise and the fan base is long acculturated to success.

Even with Bryant ageing - he is 34 and has been in the NBA since he was 18 - the club's response was not to rebuild for the future.

Anything but.

So, the young centre Andrew Bryant was moved in a four-team trade that brought them Howard, who last season led the Orlando Magic in scoring (20.6 points per game) and the league in rebounding (14.5).

The six-time all-star was second in the league in field-goal percentage (57.3) and was third in blocked shots (2.15). They sent four draft choices, including two No 1s, to the Phoenix Suns for the unselfish Nash, who even at age 38 averaged 10.7 assists per game last season.

The Canadian is fifth on the NBA's all-time assist list.

None of this came cheaply. Bryant was already the league's highest-paid player, at US$27.85 million (Dh102.3m) per season. Howard is sixth ($19.3m) and Gasol seventh ($19m). The Lakers' league-high wage bill is at $100m, requiring an additional $30m to be paid to the league in the so-called luxury tax.

Money, clearly, was not an obstacle. Some of it is the fiscal confidence that comes from a regional TV contract that pays them $120m this season. Some of it is their "Hollywood" heritage, where big stars command big money, and everyone understands.

So though the defending champion Miami Heat remain favourites to capture another title, the Lakers generally are considered second-favourite.

The Lakers are a bit like baseball's New York Yankees.

They are family-owned, by Jerry Buss, conditioned to success and not afraid to write cheques with lots of zeroes.

"They just want to win," Nash says. "And do whatever it takes to win. They've set that precedent for themselves."

Kupchak is charged with keeping the Lakers an elite team. Far more often than not, he has succeeded.

"It starts with ownership; stable and competitive ownership," he says. "Dr Buss has owned the team since 1979. There was one championship prior to '79 and there have been 10 since Dr Buss took over.

"So although they had great seasonal success in the '60s and parts of the early '70s, they really didn't start winning championships until Dr Buss purchased the team.

"Here's a guy who is an avid sports fan, self-made and kind of did everything the hard way. I think when you're that kind of successful person, you're competitive by nature.

"Certainly, he's proud to own the team. But I just don't know how you can dismiss as a coincidence that since he's owned this team, they've won 10 championships.

"That's where it starts."

This is not the first time Kupchak spent his summer reeling in high-cost veteran talent with the hope of quickly winning a championship. In 2003, he brought in the future Hall-of-Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to join Bryant and O'Neal.

That team also faced extraordinary expectations. It did not win a championship, and is too often viewed as a failed experiment.

Those Lakers won 56 games and reached the NBA finals before losing Malone to injury - and the series to the Detroit Pistons.

Kupchak does not apologise for the bold moves back then, nor does he believe it means similar risk-taking will again end in second-best "failure".

"It's comparable because we added two future Hall of Famers," he says. "When I look back on that team, we got to the finals. But just getting to the finals is hard to do in this league. I would not say that was an unsuccessful season by any means."

Bryant, however, does not see parallels between 2003 and 2012.

"It's not even comparable," he says. "Payton and I did similar things in terms of how we like to approach the ball. Karl and Shaq liked the ball in the same areas. So there were a lot of similarities across the board with players.

"Whereas with this team, it's completely different. We all just totally do different things. We like the ball in different spots and all complement each other."

That has yet to be proven. And not everyone is ready to concede the Lakers a place in the championship finals. The TV pundits Magic Johnson and Jeff Van Gundy also are uncertain the Lakers will regain powerhouse status.

Certainly, plenty of questions remain to be answered before this team's greatness is assured.

Bryant is used to having the ball in his hands and now that will be Nash's responsibility. Bryant has never been the kind of catch-and-shoot player who flourishes with Nash.

And Howard likes to be around the basket, not setting picks outside for a slashing point guard like Nash.

Kupchak, however, believes his group will click.

"I'd be surprised if Steve doesn't fit in because all he wants to do is make players look better, pass the ball and set you up," he says.

"Players like to play with guys like that. Dwight, I know he likes to score, but I think the thing he is most proud about is NBA Defensive Player of the Year, leading the league in rebounding, blocking shots.

"So I don't think it's a case where you have four guys who need the ball and want to score. I think there's a pretty good fit, on paper, but there are a lot of new faces and we're going to have to wait a year to see how it all plays out."

There is one other element to this makeover: it could be a one-season experiment. Howard, who talked his way out of Orlando, can become a free agent at the end of the season.

"I'm not going to get into that stuff," Howard said. "I'm happy that I'm here. This year is very important, and I'm looking forward to doing some great things here."

Howard, 26, has financial incentive to re-sign with the Lakers. A player can sign for an additional year and at a slightly higher salary if he signs with his current team.

With Howard, however, there are few certainties. Only that for this season, he has helped return the Lakers to the top of the NBA marquee.

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