Lakers Set to Get Rings, Defend Title

By Beth Harris, AP

LOS ANGELES, Calif. First
come the championship rings and the raising of their 15th
gold-and-purple banner, along with a few minutes of revelry reflecting
on last season. Then it’s time for the Los Angeles Lakers to begin anew
as defending NBA champions for the first time since 2002.

They’ll open their 50th anniversary season Tuesday night against No. 1
draft pick Blake Griffin and the Clippers after a preseason dogged by
injuries to Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Luke Walton.

The Lakers won 65 games and averaged 106.9 points, third-best in the
league, last season. With a projected starting lineup of Kobe Bryant,
Derek Fisher, Ron Artest, Gasol and Bynum, they’re again favored to win
another championship under coach Phil Jackson, who at 64 heads into the
final year of his contract with no extension on the table.

Gasol sat out the Lakers’ final six preseason games because of a
strained right hamstring, and he seems unlikely to play in the opener.
That would pave the way for newlywed Odom to start in his place.

Odom had an eventful preseason, marrying reality starlet Khloe
Kardashian on the eve of training camp and then missing time because of
a bruise on his lower right leg. Bynum missed two preseason games
because of a strained right rotator cuff and sore left hamstring,
although he expects to play Tuesday. Walton also sat out during camp
with a sore back.

Much is expected of
Bynum, who wasn’t a factor in last spring’s title run after missing 32
games. The 7-foot center has yet to show he’s regained his confidence
after having knee surgeries the last two years.

Other than Bynum, the Lakers were lucky in avoiding injuries last
season. Bryant and Gasol, who were coming off playing in the Beijing
Olympics, and Fisher and Odom missed a combined total of six games.

“We have the talent to win another one,” Bryant said. “If we don’t,
it’s because of our lack of focus or something else or an injury here
or there.”

Since winning the title against
Orlando, the Lakers added free-agent Artest, who signed a five-year
deal worth about $33 million, switching places with Trevor Ariza, who
left the Lakers to take Artest’s spot with the Houston Rockets.

“On paper we certainly are a better team,” Jackson said, “but sometimes
it’s chemistry that counts between players and how they work together.”

Ariza fit in seamlessly, while Artest brings baggage from his previous
volatile NBA stops. So far, though, he’s been on his best behavior with
Bryant. Their trash talking has been for laughs, just four months after
tangling as opponents in the Western Conference finals.

“It’s a risk making a commitment to anybody. You can ask everybody who got married and got divorced,” Artest said, smiling.

He seems unfazed at not being the superstar in residence, and has
deferred to Bryant, who is beginning his 14th season in Los Angeles.

“I worked hard enough in the summer to shine, but you want to fit in
with the team,” Artest said. “I’m very important to this team, just
like the 15th man on the roster. You got to take responsibility of your
own, you can’t put it all on Kobe.”

One of Jackson’s goals is to make Artest’s transition to the triangle smooth.

“Ron is more of an offensive player than Trevor was,” he said. “He’ll
be more of a focal point, but we hope that doesn’t take away from the
fact that he’s the defensive player that we’ve wanted over the course
of the last couple years to be a stopper, which Trevor was.”

Jackson won’t replace longtime assistant Kurt Rambis, who took over the
head coaching job in Minnesota. Instead, Jackson will spend more time
working with the Lakers’ big men, while his three remaining assistants
will divvy up defensive responsibilities.

“We understand the challenge of winning another one. We have to be
lucky, making sure guys stay healthy and stay strong,” said Bryant, who
averaged a team-leading 26.8 points last season. “I’m just going to do
what I did last year. I feel like I’m healthier and stronger, but my
role is still the same with this ballclub. That won’t change.”