LOS ANGELES--Kobe Bryant spent the eve of Lakers media day coaching a celebrity basketball team in Dubai, which may not be as bizarre as it seems given his NBA team is roughly half a world away from where it usually is this time of year.
Expectations haven't been this low since the Lakers had a point guard named Smush.
If the Lakers put their hands together and broke huddles by chanting "Championship" last season, what's the phrase going to be the next seven months? "Eighth seed?"
Dwight Howard is gone, Bryant may never be the same once he returns from a torn Achilles' tendon, and the mishmash of players who will carry the team in his absence has arrived at what feels like NBA purgatory.
"I guess you would say there is a little bit of an underdog tag on us, low expectations," General Manager Mitch Kupchak said a few days before his team's scheduled media day Saturday. "Contrasted to a year ago, it's night and day."
Steve Nash is still here, but the point guard who was no longer elite at 39 will turn 40 in February.
Pau Gasol hasn't gone anywhere, but he'll have to stand his ground as the last line of defense without Howard hovering behind him.
Steve Blake remains on the roster, but do you care?
Perhaps the only hope these Lakers have is to overachieve as much as last season's presumed title contenders underachieved.
"I think they'll respond to Dwight's departure, to all the criticism they took last year, to being underdogs," TNT analyst Steve Kerr said. "I think those things will all help the Lakers. I think they'll play hard and I think they'll play better together, but I don't think they have enough talent to compete with the top teams.
"I think they can maybe compete for that last playoff spot, but defensively they've got some real issues. To lose Dwight and his rebounding and rim protection -- and who knows with Kobe (possibly being out at the start of the season) -- I think they're going to have their struggles."
Bryant was expected to make it back from the United Arab Emirates in time Saturday to provide an update on his status. But even if he returns by the Oct. 29 opener against the Clippers, the only certainty is that he'll be wearing jersey No. 24.
Everything else is a question mark in 100-point type.
Will Bryant, 35 and beginning his 18th NBA season, possess the same explosiveness? Will he take the breaks necessary to preserve his body? Will he revert to the pass-first mode that was so effective late last season if it's what this team needs to win?
"I think he's at the point of his career where he's got to say, 'OK, I can still be extremely effective, but I have to let some of these younger players develop,' because they're going to need a collective effort, no question," said James Worthy, the Lakers studio analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsNet.
"When they really need Kobe down the stretch in the fourth quarter, he can still rise to the occasion, but I think he might be fooling himself if he thinks he can just come off an Achilles' injury in his 18th year and try to dominate."
The Lakers smartly got younger and more athletic with the additions of Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson. It's possible that their run-and-fun second unit could play at a pace more to the liking of Coach Mike D'Antoni than the starters do.
Farmar also provides a stronger defensive presence at point guard than Nash does, meaning Farmar could play extra minutes against super-quick counterparts Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.
Gasol will be free to roam the interior now that Howard is gone, wiping out Gasol's biggest gripe from recent seasons. He'll also probably play more in fourth quarters, allowing him to put on his big-boy pants at the end of games.
Worthy said a full training camp under D'Antoni and the addition of Kurt Rambis as a de facto defensive coordinator should give these Lakers a clearer identity than the version that needed an epic second-half surge last season just to attain a No. 7 playoff seeding.
Of course, Worthy may be outnumbered by the doubters whose expectations aren't nearly as lofty.
"That's something you need to feed off, especially when people underestimate you," Young said. "If they come to the Staples Center like, 'Oh, we've got this today, it's going to be an easy win today,' that's what we want to hear."
The Lakers could be hearing it on an almost nightly basis.
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