Lakerland forecast: sunny and warm

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Flanked by his two 7-footers, a basketball in his hands, another season stretching in front of him, Kobe Bryant narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips. This was the same cold stare that had chilled opponent and teammate alike, the same withering glare Bryant had flashed from that podium in Boston on the night the Celtics shoved his Los Angeles Lakers from the NBA Finals. Bryant’s eyes, once again, burned with defiance.

For a moment, anyway. The photographer gave his cue, the flashbulbs popped and Kobe Bryant instantly melted into a smile.

“I’m happy,” he would say some 30 minutes later, still grinning during a media session on the eve of training camp.

Given that the franchise’s fortunes have shifted season-to-season on Bryant’s moods for more than a decade now, this qualified as good news, though hardly surprising. As Bryant said himself: These days, there’s a lot to be happy about.

Andrew Bynum, the Lakers’ 20-year-old center, says he has recovered “100 percent” from his knee injury and is ready to deliver on the promise and talent he showed during the first half of last season. Pau Gasol, whose arrival midway through last season transformed the Lakers into title contenders, has returned, albeit without the burden of being the team’s primary interior defender. Trevor Ariza also has healed, giving the Lakers an athletic perimeter defender, if not another starting option at small forward should Lamar Odom’s transition to the position not go smoothly.

Even the disappointment of losing in the Finals faded for Bryant as soon as he slipped a gold medal around his neck in Beijing, a day after his 30th birthday.

“I’ve just been rolling,” Bryant said. “Thirty is the new 20 anyway. … I’m all good.”

That’s quite the change from a year ago when Bryant rolled into training camp determined to roll right out of town. He had hopscotched through a series of summer interviews issuing trade demands, criticizing Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and, in one particularly infamous moment, mocking Bynum to two fans by urging the team to “ship his ass out!” Some of the team’s beat writers felt it necessary to check whether Bryant had actually boarded the charter flight to Hawaii for the start of camp.

For much of the previous five years, the Lakers always seemed to begin the season with issues, many of them Bryant’s. He was mad at Shaquille O’Neal. He was mad at Phil Jackson. He was mad at Jerry Buss. He had a court date waiting in Eagle, Colo.

Not this fall. The only scent of controversy has come from Odom, who bristled at Jackson’s public declaration that the versatile forward might be better-suited for a sixth-man role. Jackson, Odom told the Los Angeles Times’ Broderick Turner, “must have woke up and bumped his head.”

Still, Odom isn’t one to create locker-room problems, even if he doesn’t embrace such a move. And as far as offseasons go, the Lakers’ was shockingly … uneventful.

“There’s more focus on our promise and our potential,” Derek Fisher said, “as opposed to our demise.”

The Lakers should open this season as the popular favorite to win the Western Conference, though the road to the Finals figures to be as rugged as ever. Now battle-tested, the New Orleans Hornets return with James Posey, whose defense and long-range shooting figured prominently in the Celtics’ dismissal of the Lakers. The Utah Jazz gained another postseason of experience. The San Antonio Spurs are another year older, but no one’s stuck a stake in Tim Duncan yet. The Houston Rockets added Ron Artest. The Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks, aging but still talented, added new coaches.

After wilting under the Celtics’ aggressiveness in the Finals, the Lakers have prioritized improving their defense. They’ll also have some chemistry issues to work through; Gasol and Bynum have never played a game together. Nor have Gasol and Bynum ever entered a season saddled with the expectations they now carry.

“Before you’re trying to get better or trying to be good,” Fisher said. “Now, you’re expected to be good. I think oftentimes you expect that from yourself. But sometimes in professional sports, for some reason, it’s not until everybody else expects it that you start to think about it. … We’ll see how our team reacts to it this season.”

For now, the Lakers are only hopeful and healthy. Bryant warns not to read too much into Jackson wanting to cut back his minutes. Nor is he worried about putting off surgery on his damaged right pinkie. As for his future? He very well may become a free agent at the end of the season, but no one really expects him to leave if the Lakers are winning – even if a European team comes calling with a staggering offer.

“We have all the tools here,” Bryant said. “All the pieces to the puzzle. Now it’s on us to do the work.”

Bryant smiled one more time for the cameras. No issues. No controversy. Not on this day. The rest of the NBA beware. Kobe Bryant plans to keep rolling.

Johnny Ludden is the NBA editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Johnny a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Sep 30, 2008