LOS ANGELES – Microphone in hand, all eyes on him, Kobe Bryant stood in the middle of the Staples Center floor and revealed the only goal his Los Angeles Lakers care about this season. Los Angeles had acquired Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the offseason to load up the league's most talented starting lineup, and yet this much hadn't changed from any of Bryant's previous years in the NBA: The Lakers don't consider a season a success unless it ends with a parade.
"As you know, we got a lot of expectations this season," Bryant told the crowd minutes before the Lakers' opening game against the Dallas Mavericks. "We are working hard to live up to the expectations. We are trying to bring a championship back home where it belongs in Los Angeles. Thank you very much. Let's get this party started and enjoy the show."
About three hours into this supposed Lakers season-opening party, it felt more like the Mavericks and their owner Mark Cuban had popped all the yellow and purple balloons, threw cake at Howard and Nash and blew party whistles in the faces of Bryant and coach Mike Brown. No, this wasn't the show Bryant envisioned. Clippers owner Donald Sterling even showed up for the event and sat not too far from the Lakers' bench, an omen in itself, perhaps.
The Lakers' season opener was memorable, but not for the reasons they had hoped. They were embarrassed 99-91 by a misfit Mavericks' crew that included nine new players, none of them frontline stars. And Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman, sidelined by injuries, weren't among the Mavs in uniform.
"We got to remember that we have 81 more games left to play," Howard said. "Rome wasn't built in a day. That's what somebody told me."
One the biggest concerns entering the season for the Lakers was chemistry, and it was clear the preseason didn't offer them enough time to develop it. Injuries limited the Lakers' starting five of Bryant, Howard, Nash, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace to playing just one of eight preseason games together. Brown said it might take until Christmas before the Lakers are comfortable with each other.
When asked how long it would take for the Lakers to jell, Gasol said, "It's hard to say. The sooner, the better. But you know it's not going to happen right away."
The Lakers' offense appears to need the most work. After one game, the players seem to still be grasping the offense's Princeton principles.
The Lakers moved the ball freely in the first quarter when they had 10 assists, but totaled just 14 more the rest of the game. During his days in Phoenix and Dallas, Nash became one of the game's greatest point guards by controlling the offense and tempo and finding teammates for open shots. But with the Princeton offense, the ball was often out of his hands. One of the greatest passers in NBA history finished with only four assists.
Lakers assistant coach Eddie Jordan, who implemented the Princeton offense, said he wasn't certain when the team would feel comfortable.
"The ball came to a standstill and the ball stopped," Brown said. "We didn't move bodies like we did early on and our guys started thinking a little bit too much and our execution wasn't quite there like it was at the start of the game."
Said Nash: "We got a lot of work to do offensively."
Brown said Nash has the freedom to run pick-and-rolls instead of the offense, but Nash opted not to do that much on opening night. An NBA scout offered these words of caution: "The Lakers' offense is the greatest defense ever played against Steve Nash," he said. "It takes the ball out of his hands."
Howard, meanwhile, needed only one game to show his free-throw issues from last season haven't improved with a change of scenery. He missed 11 of 14 foul shots against the Mavericks, including one attempt that banked off the backboard and brought a chuckle from the crowd and frustration to Howard's face.
"I'm upset at the line. I got to stop thinking so much," Howard said. "I got to stop thinking. I get up there and I'm thinking too much about, 'I got to make it. I got to make it.' I end up bricking."
Another concern of the Lakers: health. Howard said his back felt fine in just his third game since offseason surgery, though Brown thought Howard was "still a little off" with his reaction time. Bryant played with a strained right foot, and scored 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Still, he had no explosion, no dunks and no free throws. He said his right foot was sore and admitted he's a little concerned about playing on consecutive nights when the Lakers visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday.
"I played today at about 80 to 85 percent," Bryant said.
Each Lakers loss could bring even more hand-wringing than normal from their fervent fans, given the talent on their roster. Much of that angst will likely be directed at Brown, who already faced strong criticism at the end of last season.
"I hope that come after Christmas sometime – January, before the All-Star break – we're clicking a little bit, so now we go away for the All-Star break and come back and take another week or so to figure it out and then take off from there," Brown said. "…This is an intelligent team, it might happen sooner than later or it may not."
Howard reminded everyone it was just the first game. But Howard also is new to L.A. He'll soon understand it's truly never just one game with Bryant and the Lakers.
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