LOS ANGELES--What a strange day it was, with a smaller-than-usual group of reporters on hand to poke, prod and cajole the Los Angeles Lakers at their annual media day.
Saturday marked the beginning of training camp, the first one since 1979 without Jerry Buss and certainly one filled with unanswerable questions in an uncomfortable row for Lakers fans.
When will Kobe Bryant return?
Is Pau Gasol healthy? How about Steve Nash?
What's in store for Coach Mike D'Antoni?
Will the Lakers even make the playoffs?
They had to push themselves to get there last season, finishing 45-37 and seventh in the Western Conference only after beating Houston in the regular-season finale.
That was with Dwight Howard. And Metta World Peace.
If last season was a chaotic fireworks display gone awry, this season could be more like a sparkler or that little black snake with an 11-second shelf life after it's lighted.
Nobody has high hopes for the Lakers. Except the Lakers themselves.
Bryant, ever the optimist, still talked about winning a championship this season.
"It doesn't matter what anybody else is saying. That's the goal that we have," he said.
Then he eventually ducked back inside the underbelly of the Lakers' training facility in El Segundo. He wouldn't be healthy enough to take part in the team's first practice.
He is still recovering from a torn Achilles' tendon and has started running on a special "anti-gravity" treadmill with an air-pressure chamber that envelops his lower body and reduces his running impact.
His next step will be to run on the court, but that's likely to be weeks away, not days, meaning he'll take part in very few, if any, preseason practices.
Not like he needs them. But Bryant acknowledges he's not in game shape as the Lakers move closer to their season opener Oct. 29 against the Clippers.
"It won't take me long to do that," he said. "When I get back out there on the court, I'll be good to go. I don't think I've ever played a season where I was 100 percent. So, like, 78 percent is fine."
Will 78 percent be enough for the Lakers?
Gasol and Nash will be training-camp participants after finishing last season either injured (Nash) or on the way to a medical procedure (Gasol).
By all accounts, Nash seems recovered from the broken bone in his leg and the accompanying nerve damage. Gasol is further behind after sitting out most of the summer because of a procedure to decrease persistent tendon pain in his knees. He is cleared to begin practicing but will ease into it.
Everybody wanted to know about Bryant, though, and he was willing to share.
His thoughts on Dwight Howard bolting: "I really don't give a.... It is what is. If he came back, it would have been great."
His thoughts on who picks up the defensive slack without Howard and World Peace: "I think you've got to look at Nick Young. I think you've got to look at Wesley Johnson. It's on us to kind of train them up a little bit, teach them various things and tricks to try to get them to that point."
And on his recent jump from a high-dive platform that earned a "not great judgment" label from General Manager Mitch Kupchak: "I just wanted to go out and have fun. I was going to do a flip, but then I said, no, I probably shouldn't do that."
Almost predictably, Bryant, 35 years old and entering the last year of his contract, was bullish on what he sees down the road before his career ends.
"Another championship. That's easy," he said.
Bryant knows plenty about winning. But can Young, Johnson and Chris Kaman really replace Howard and World Peace? It's just not realistic to think so.
The Lakers are predicted to finish third in their division, a striking possibility for a franchise atop the Pacific 23 times since 1971, including five in a row until the Clippers broke it up last season.
Nash, who will be 40 in February, offered his own analysis after looking around at the comparatively light attendance at Lakers media day.
"It's 180 degrees from last year," he said. "But you have to embrace every year for what it is and the challenge. Maybe we'll surprise everybody and turn into a completely different team than people expect. But I think you don't need to talk about that stuff right now. We need to find some commonality and understanding and identity that we never really found last year and go from there."
With Bryant, Nash and Gasol, the Lakers won't use a blistering offense to outscore anybody, meaning D'Antoni will have to adjust his usual push-the-pace mantra.
Expect a lot of Gasol and Bryant in the post, whenever they start playing.
A preview of things to come, courtesy of Bryant: "We're going to play exactly how we finished off last year, playing with a tempo that's right for us. We're not an up-and-down, run-and-gun team by any stretch of the imagination. We'll use the strengths we have."
As usual, it will come down primarily to Bryant.
He cautioned reporters in a friendly way, reminding them that Peyton Manning's career was supposed to be done a few years ago and that David Beckham successfully came back from a torn Achilles' tendon.
D'Antoni tried to sound hopeful.
"Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant -- the question mark is one's coming back from injury, one's a little older, one's this and one's that," D'Antoni said. "But you don't find any better players than them. It's just trying to get them healthy, try to keep them healthy and see what happens."
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