- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Los Angeles Lakers.
HONOLULU -- Even Kobe Bryant, even with everything happening in his life, felt a need to pause on his first day back at practice and scope out the whole scene. There was that much to see.
Gary Payton over here.
Karl Malone over there.
Shaquille O'Neal in the far corner, getting his heel massaged.
It's not like Bryant to be awestruck, but that's almost how he sounded, without even mentioning the return of Horace Grant ... or the late addition of Bryon Russell ... or the familiar ring-bearers who haven't left: Derek Fisher, Devean George and Rick Fox.
"I was just looking around the gym and saying, 'How did we end up with this team?' "
It all happened during the most dramatic Laker summer ever. Management responded to the sudden end of the three-in-a-row championship reign by convincing Payton and Malone to play for a combined $6.4 million this season, after those two legends shared more than $30 million in salaries last season. Adding Grant and Russell to the other vets puts the Lakers right back up there in the running for League's Deepest Team, after a glaring lack of help for O'Neal and Bryant helped derail the title run.
Of course, it's easily explained why little of that had sunk in for Bryant. It was only about 24 hours after Payton and Malone were introduced as Lakers on July 17 that Bryant was charged with the felony sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman in Colorado. Bryant's presence at practice on Saturday marked the first time since the charges that he has really reattached himself to the team.
Which is just one of the reasons that these Lakers, already one of the most memorable assemblages in league history, seem as fragile as they are fearsome. No one can be sure exactly how they'll cope with the uncertainty of Bryant's future and the resultant hoopla and the now somehow secondary matter of getting four future Hall of Famers to share the ball seamlessly. No one is even sure when Jackson will be able to get all four of them on the floor healthy together.
The safest prediction to make, this early, is to peg the Lakers for a spectacular season. Spectacular success or failure.
"It's going to work because we're going to make it work," Payton insists. "Everybody wants us to fail, but we're not going to fail. ... We scored a lot of points in our career, me and Karl, we accomplished a lot of things -- but we're not looking (for) that no more. We're looking for making our statement that we can win a championship and keep winning 'em until our careers end."
It was Payton, after Bryant met the media for the first time since the accusations, who loudly suggested that the Lakers have already hatched a plan to negate the distraction factor. "If we go 30-5," Payton said, "y'all ain't going to talk about nothing else. If we go 40-2, what (are) you going to talk about? ... Y'all going to talk about how dominant of a basketball team we are."
Fact is, they actually have the talent to do it. For all the jokes about how Tex Winter will now have to come up with a rectangle offense, the Lakers are potentially impossible to guard if they keep the ball moving, with four All-NBA scoring threats for defenses to plan for. All of their recent offensive issues -- no running, few easy baskets and nary a game-breaker besides Shaq or Kobe -- have theoretically been addressed by the acquisition of two more greats.
Of greater promise, the Lakers' defense should be considerably better, because they've upgraded at such perennially troublesome positions: Payton as the ball-hawking point guard and Malone as a more muscular presence at power forward. "Last year they didn't play defense for Phil," said Payton, echoing what Jackson sees as the chief culprit in L.A.'s fall. The constant proddings of Payton and Malone, both hungry to finally win the rings that have eluded them, should soothe the Lakers' famed penchant for misplacing their regular-season intensity. Example No. 1: Payton's talk of a 40-2 start.
The new Lakers will also be quite deep, reminiscent of the 1999-2000 title team that had Fisher, Fox and Robert Horry coming off the bench. It's a safe bet to suggest that there won't be any games like the fateful Game 6 elimination against San Antonio last spring, when Slava Medvedenko was the third most productive Laker on the floor.
"The rest of us should be really excited," Fisher said, "because we're going to be the beneficiary of a lot of great guys being on the court at the same time."
Yet it should be noted that Jackson, the ideal coach to hold this all together, is speaking a lot more cautiously than the giddy players. Jackson wanted to hire extra thirtysomethings like Grant and Russell to bring even more of a seen-it-all mindset to the locker room, and the coach is hopeful that Bryant will play more of a team game -- and get closer to his teammates -- because of all the off-court pressure he's facing. But who knows? With so many variables, Jackson isn't assuming anything.
Of the challenges ahead, and needing one more championship to break a tie with Red Auerbach, Jackson recently told ESPN.com contributor Sam Smith: "I really can't find anything comparable (in history)."
That's because the Knicks team Jackson likes to use a comparison in X-and-O terms -- adding Earl Monroe to Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, etc. -- didn't have to break The Pearl in amid such turmoil. The scrutiny generated by the Bryant case is unprecedented in professional team sports. It remains to be seen how Bryant (and the Lakers, by extension) will cope with the prospect of in-season court dates, hecklers in the arenas, protests outside of them and an ongoing flow of sordid headlines.
It's a list that doesn't even include the more Knicks-like concerns of getting four big egos to mesh instead of clash. There are plenty of physical concerns, too.
O'Neal has noticeably trimmed his physique but is already dealing with a new injury, missing practice time over the weekend with a bruised left heel. As always, his physical state has as much bearing on the league's balance of power as any other factor.
On top of the fears that he will wind up isolating himself from the team more than ever, Bryant is recovering from knee and shoulder surgery and lacks conditioning after understandably stepping away from basketball for the summer.
Fox is likely out until January, and the Lakers will have to monitor Malone (40) and Payton (35), finely tuned as they are, strictly because of their ages.
And Jackson himself is returning from May heart surgery.
"We'll manage," Bryant said. "We'll manage. We've been through tough situations. We'll be able to get through this as well."
We'll see. We'll see.
"We're always the favorites," O'Neal said. "Some of you guys may not want to believe it. You might throw in a few other OK teams, but we're always the favorites. We just have to go out and prove it."
Said Fox: "We just look great on paper right now, which is a good start. It helps starting that way. But in the last three years we've beaten some teams that I would say, matched up on paper, looked a lot better than us. And so it was about working through those issues that arose from time to time, settling into those (situations) and working them out, as we have in the last three championships. And last year was no different. We had our issues again. Every good team and every bad team has issues. The good ones work them out."
2dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann