June 20, 2018
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Lakers taking low-key approach to title defense


LOS ANGELES — While the entire basketball world focused squarely on Miami for the past three months, the Los Angeles Lakers waited quietly across the continent, polishing their rings and enjoying the show.

“I was thinking, ‘Wow, how did Pat Riley pull that off?'” Kobe Bryant said.

Bryant’s laugh betrays no hint of anxiety. For a team with two straight titles, the league’s largest payroll and the most successful coach in NBA history beginning possibly his final season, the Lakers appear looser than Ron Artest on a weekend Twitter barrage.

While recognizing the historic nature of the upcoming months in their quest for their 17th NBA crown, the Lakers exhibit the casual confidence of a team that has largely stayed intact through three straight trips to the NBA finals, only adding veteran pieces to a core with the league’s most impressive pedigree.

Miami is drawing all the Heat early on, and that’s just fine with the champions. The Lakers know who they are.

“We’re confident in ourselves,” Bryant said. “I’m not a guy, and we’re not a team, that worries about what other people are doing.”

Los Angeles also begins the regular season Tuesday night against Houston with its pieces still a bit askew, and not just because of a preseason trip to Europe interrupting their training camp.

After grinding out their second title with a Game 7 victory over the Boston Celtics in mid-June, the Lakers’ regulars mostly took the summer off for repairs and revitalization.

Pau Gasol had his first real summer vacation since 2005, skipping summer duties with the Spanish national team, while Bryant and center Andrew Bynum had surgery. Coach Phil Jackson retreated to his Montana ranch, where he quickly decided he couldn’t pass up the chance to make a run at an unprecedented fourth NBA threepeat.

“When there’s history on the table, it’s hard to resist that,” Jackson said. “I think we have the players to do that, and I think we got better in the offseason with our acquisitions and our recovery. There’s still a very long way to go, but this journey could be unique.”

None of the Lakers’ regulars could resist that journey — not even backup guard Shannon Brown, who might have blossomed outside of Bryant’s shadow, but wasn’t willing to sacrifice a championship run to find out. Derek Fisher also turned down an offer from Miami, rejoining Bryant to chase their sixth rings together.

“This team is still a juggernaut,” said Lamar Odom, the U.S. world champion who will start for the Lakers until Bynum returns. “We have so many people that can do it inside and out. No matter who’s the first, second or third option, we’re still one of the best offensive teams in the league.”

Bynum is sidelined for at least another month after offseason knee surgery, which he delayed to make a trip to the World Cup with Bryant, who still isn’t back in top health after his own offseason surgery. Jackson is likely to limit Kobe’s minutes early on, hoping to wean him off the 39-minute-per-game pace of his past six seasons.

“I’m not as concerned about his shot as him just having the overall ability to have the energy he wants to play with,” Jackson said. “His shot will come as soon as he gets that. He’s the best caretaker of his own health I’ve ever seen. … I think he just needs to play some ball, and he’ll be fine.”

Gasol took a break from the nonstop grind of the last half-decade, but still made several trips to various exotic spots on the globe. Jackson has emphasized the need for greater leadership from the 7-footer this season, particularly while Bynum is out and Bryant is limited.

“I always adjust to the team’s needs,” said Gasol, who also cut his rock-star hair. “Kobe is our main guy, for sure. We’re just trying to get as healthy as possible to start off the year. We want him to be 100 percent throughout the year, but probably not at the beginning, if we had to choose. I’ll step up in whatever role we need until then.”

The Lakers front office didn’t sit still, either. General manager Mitch Kupchak went to work building a bench that should be markedly better than the unit that repeatedly gave away leads and forced starters to play long minutes last season.

Underachievers Jordan Farmar, Adam Morrison, Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga are out. They’ve been replaced by three rugged NBA veterans — point guard Steve Blake, agitating swingman Matt Barnes and venerable shot-blocker Theo Ratliff — and the return of forward Luke Walton, whose back problems limited him to 29 games last season.

All three could play significant roles for the Lakers this season, and all three are grateful to be a part of the next chapter in their storied franchise’s history.

“This is why you start playing basketball when you’re a kid,” Barnes said. “You want to be a part of great teams, and you want to win championships. The other stuff is great, the individual stuff, but if you play in this league long enough, you realize the only thing that’s important is the rings, and this team has a great opportunity to get one.”

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