First Posted: 9/28/2013
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Kobe Bryant stepped off a flight from Dubai and showed up at the Los Angeles Lakers’ training complex Saturday, joining his teammates for the first morning of training camp.
Although Bryant is globetrotting comfortably on his surgically repaired Achilles tendon, he’s still uncertain when he’ll join the Lakers on their practice court as they begin their return from a hugely disappointing season for the 16-time champion franchise.
“I feel good,” Bryant said. “I don’t think we have a particular timetable as to where I should be right now, but I’m feeling good.”
Kobe is more certain about a few other things: He’ll come back strong from his injury, and the Lakers can contend for another title even without Dwight Howard.
“Our expectations are always the same going into every single season,” Bryant said. “Improve every single game with the goal in mind of winning the championship. Doesn’t matter what anybody else is saying. That’s the goal that we have.”
After an offseason that began in mid-April when he tore his tendon in a game against Golden State, Bryant likely is still a long way from stepping on the practice court. Yet nobody around the Lakers is willing to predict any timetable for an athlete with almost supernatural recuperative powers.
The fourth-leading scorer in NBA history is running on a special treadmill and doing some court drills, but still isn’t sprinting or playing basketball. Bryant knows he might not be ready for opening night Oct. 29, but he’s not willing to concede anything in his latest comeback.
“My goal is to play tonight, you know what I mean?” Bryant asked. “It’s about being smart about it and pacing it the right way and just seeing how it does. It’s really just a strength thing now. I’m just seeing how it holds up, and then how the recovery holds up after that. … The procedure and the therapy right after that really got me ahead of the curve. It feels like the hard part is over.”
Bryant and the Lakers reported for an early camp — thanks to a looming trip to China — with cautious optimism following a tumultuous year. After assembling Howard and Steve Nash for a run at a title, almost nothing went right for the Lakers while finishing seventh in the Western Conference and getting swept out of the first round by San Antonio.
Injuries limited Nash to 32 games in his first Lakers season, and the two-time MVP point guard is now the NBA’s oldest active player. Pau Gasol sacrificed playing time and position to help the team, but then struggled through knee injuries that required extensive offseason treatment.
Howard played one inconsistent season and ditched the Lakers, taking a smaller contract to play for the Houston Rockets. The mercurial center never got comfortable playing alongside Bryant and in the shadow of Los Angeles’ great centers, but the remaining Lakers aren’t sparing much thought for him these days.
Bryant replied with an expletive when asked if he regretted Howard’s departure.
“If he would have come back, it would have been great,” Bryant said. “If he didn’t, it’s not, so it’s not.”
Bryant won’t be alone on the Lakers’ sideline at the start of camp. Gasol also will sit out at least the first few days of practice while easing back from offseason treatment on tendinosis in his knees, and Nash’s minutes will be heavily managed to keep him healthy.
The Lakers have several new faces to work into coach Mike D’Antoni’s schemes after adding veterans Nick Young, Chris Kaman, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson in the summer.
D’Antoni didn’t get a training camp after arriving early last season, so he’s grateful for the time with the players and new assistant coaches Kurt Rambis and Johnny Davis.
“We have to try to build the chemistry, and the trust factor takes a while,” D’Antoni said. “The (outside) expectations are down. Obviously, we have some question marks, and that’s why people either put us down at 12th or whatever. That happens. Doesn’t really affect what we do or our mindset. Our mindset is to overachieve and get this team as strong as we can. We have a lot of talent on this team, and hopefully we have a little chip on our shoulder.”
Nobody carries a bigger chip than Bryant, who zealously draws fuel from doubters. He’s running with 75 percent of his body weight on the treadmill, and he has done ladder drills on the court to improve his agility, but he grudgingly acknowledges his return isn’t imminent.
Still, Bryant is deep into the mind games necessary to get himself back more quickly than anyone expected. He referenced David Beckham, Mariano Rivera and Peyton Manning as inspirations for a strong comeback from a late-career injury.
”I need to get in shape, but it doesn’t really take me long to do that,” Bryant said. “I work hard at it. When I get back on the court, I’ll be good to go. I don’t think I’ve ever played a season where I was 100 percent. Like 70, 80 percent is fine.”