EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — “Honestly, I really don’t give a s—,” replied Kobe Bryant when asked about Dwight Howard’s free agent defection to Houston. “If he came back it would have been great. He didn’t and that’s fine. It is what it is.”
Those few sentences at Lakers media day opened the 2013-2014 season and officially ended the Lakers’ version of the Dwightmare, although Bryant said he knew long before July 5 that Howard was on his way to Texas.
“He never seemed really happy to be here, so I knew he was leaving and going to Houston,” said Bryant, who continues to recover from surgery to repair the torn Achilles tendon he suffered on April 12. “We’ve got new guys they brought in here, guys with real athleticism who will make us a better running team.
“We’ll just move on with the team we have.”
That team will likely start the regular season without the Black Mamba when the Lakers face the Clippers on Oct. 29, although he’s still trying to make it back for opening night. “I want to play tonight,” Bryant said with a laugh, “but I’m going to be smart about it and not force anything.”
Bryant has been limited to low pressure workouts inside the anti-gravity treadmill, which allows him to run without putting much stress on his lower body.
“My main thing is to get in playing shape — and I’m not there yet,” Kobe said, who probably won’t participate in a practice session until halfway through training camp. “But it won’t take me long to do that. It never does. And when I get back on the court I’ll be ready to go.
“I’ve never played a season where I’ve been 100 percent (healthy). At 78 percent I’ll be fine.”
So while Kobe hopes to ramp up his workouts soon, the Lakers have two other future Hall of Famers trying to resurrect their careers after subpar performances last season.
Guard Steve Nash played through leg and back woes, and center/forward Pau Gasol battled severe tendinitis in both knees and a torn plantar fascia.
Both say they’re nearly all the way back and looking forward to showing that they’re still two of the best players in league history.
“I’m coming into camp feeling great and excited for the year,” said Nash, who will start the season as the NBA’s oldest player, turning 40 in February. “Last year everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong for us. It was tough.
“It was a great experience, though, to play for the Lakers, play in this community and for this fan base. It’s a little different going from a (championship) contender to a team not picked to do anything. Hopefully we can build some chemistry with the new players we’ve brought in and surprise some people.”
Nash was one of the Lakers who met with Howard to try and persuade him to stay in L.A. When the big man took his No. 12 to Houston, there wasn’t much of an uproar about him leaving. As a player who knows what it like to be beloved by a city — Nash got a sincere warm welcome when he went back to Phoenix last season even though he asked to be traded to the Suns’ rival. He says he’s not really shocked about the lack of reaction to Howard’s departure.
“Laker fans have such pride and passion for their team,” Nash said, “that in the end when Dwight didn’t want to be here, (the fans) were happy to see him move on. There’s such a great history with this franchise, and the fans want players who want to be Lakers, and Dwight didn’t want to be here. So, everybody moved on.”
The player who will benefit most with Howard gone is Gasol, who will get a lot more opportunities close to the basket, a place he has dominated since coming to the NBA.
“Pau is a very important part of what we’re going to try to do here,” said head coach Mike D’Antoni. “We just have to find a way to keep him healthy.”
Gasol spent the summer having stem cells taken from his back and injected into his knees to try and get rid of the debilitating inflammation he suffered throughout last season. He says the procedure was a success, but not without a cost.
“It was very painful, very painful,” Gasol said. “It kept me off my feet for a while and after that I was on crutches for three weeks. It was a lot of hard work in rehab and a lot more pain before everything kicked in.
“I should be ready to go by opening (night).”
He’ll be joined by newcomers such as center/forward Chris Kaman; guards Jordan Farmar, Nick Young and Wesley Johnson; along with their first draft pick, Ryan Kelly from Duke. Every player asked about it said they like the fact that no one is picking them to make the Finals, because it gives them a chip on their shoulders that could make it an unexpectedly good season for the Lakers. They’re picked to finish in the middle of their division; certainly no guarantee of a playoff spot, and Nash says people should beware.
“This is a great team with great players,” Nash said. “If we develop chemistry, who knows what can happen.”
Especially when you have the ever-optimistic Bryant on your team.
His contract expires after this season and he could retire if he figures his time is up. So if this were it, how would he like his last season to play out? He responded without hesitation.
“Win another championship.”
Studying the current roster, you might conclude that Kobe has finally lost it. But look into his eyes and listen to his voice and you might start to believe the way he does.