Not even 100 days have passed since the Lakers brought the Boston Celtics to their knees in Game Seven of the NBA Finals. For fans of the purple and gold, however, it's starting to seem like an eternity. When you root for a team that's just won a championship, you really only need about a month's worth of offseason. Figure, one week to let the victory soak in and enjoy the parade, one week to read all the postseason analysis, and then a couple weeks to scrutinize draft picks and free-agent signings. That's it. The balance of the offseason is empty, painful calendar-watching.
The end to this excruciating wait is, if not exactly nigh, at least starting to appear on the horizon. This Saturday, September 25th, the Lakers will begin training camp in El Segundo. There won't even be a preseason game until a week-and-a-half later, but still: training camp! Photos of dudes stretching and scrimmaging in their practice jerseys! Breaking news stories about... well, dudes stretching and scrimmaging in their practice jerseys.
OK, so the news out of training camp is rarely compelling. The stories tend to be the same year after year, and this season the narratives seem especially predictable. They're so predictable, in fact, that below I've described the top five storylines Laker fans will be reading about once practice gets underway. I guarantee that Laker beat reporters have these teed up already as template docs on their laptops, needing only to drop in dates before filing their copy.
5. The Rookies Look Great! Rookies always look great in training camp. If you have any doubts about this, just ask the teams that drafted them. In the preseason, no one wants to admit that a rookie looks overwhelmed or fundamentally unready for NBA play. To do so invites ridicule of a team's draft picks before the kids have even had a proper chance to fail. That's fair. But when the real bullets start flying, not every rookie (or even most) will live up to his glowing practice reviews. So when you hear that Devin Ebanks looks like a young Trevor Ariza (which you will, many times) or that Derrick Caracter has learned from his past mistakes and is all grown up, skepticism is warranted. Both assessments could well be true, but it's going to take a lot more than some half-speed three-on-three drills to find out.
4. Those Injuries From Last Season? All Better Now. The Lakers battled through last year's playoffs with various injuries big and small. The most significant were to Kobe Bryant, who suffered from a painful and debilitated right knee and a broken right index finger, and Andrew Bynum, who had torn cartilage in his right knee. Both have had offseason knee surgery - Kobe's apparently electing a nonsurgical approach to healing his finger - and reports of their recovery have been promising. When the team reconvenes for practice, we'll get our first direct look at their physical conditions, and we'll undoubtedly be told that both Kobe and Drew are doing fine. That's partly because Kobe always says he's fine, and partly because he and Drew presumably are, in fact, in decent shape... for the moment. It's one thing to feel hale and hearty in late September after a summer of rest. The real question is how those body parts will hold up over the long season ahead.
3. The New Vets Are Learning Their X's and O's. The Lakers' offensive and defensive systems are both idiosyncratic. There's the Triangle offense, of course. Less famous, but just as crucial to the Lakers' success the past two seasons, is their strong-side trap defensive scheme. Neither is simple. They each require players to transcend one-on-one battles, to diagnose rapidly how opponents themselves are attacking or defending and to choose from multiple courses of action based on that diagnosis. With the Triangle in particular, it's not simply a matter of learning "plays." It's about changing the way you think on the court.
Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff are new parts being installed into this machine. They have to figure out where on the court they need to be and at what times. The integration won't happen quickly, but it would be nice if it happened as quickly as possible. Last year, the Laker offense was hampered by Ron Artest's slow pick-up of the Triangle. Luckily, none of the incoming vets is as flaky as Artest, although Barnes is working at it.
2. Hey, Check Out the Random Bro Trying to Make the Roster. Every year, NBA teams fill out their training camps with undrafted rookies, D League flotsam and other strays they find on the sidewalk. The idea is, you don't want to put too much wear on your vets during the preseason, so you bring in warm bodies to help staff scrimmages. The guys you invite don't have a realistic shot of making the team. At best, they leave a good impression so that if and when a run of midseason injuries hits, you can sign one to a 10-day contract as a short-term patch.
But every year, one of these gritty strivers captures the eye of beat reporters desperate for a story, and thus ensues a little "Hey, maybe the Lakers will keep him around!" speculation. Last season it was Tony Gaffney. This season it could be Russell Hicks, a seven-footer out of Florida International who's been balling in the D League with the Iowa Energy and whom the Lakers recently invited to camp. Let's go ahead and end the suspense: he's not making the team. The Lakers already have the league's highest payroll, they're not spending more for a third center, and even if they did they'd just bring back D.J. Mbenga.
Sorry, Russell. No offense intended, and I hope you have a fun time in El Segundo. Just do us a favor and stay away from Andrew Bynum's knees.
1. The Champs Are Still Hungry! The Lakers have won two NBA titles in a row. Kobe now has five rings, and Phil Jackson has 11. Is the hunger there for another championship drive? Can the team keep complacency at bay? Are they willing to put in the work necessary to hold off all challengers?
Of course they are. Or maybe they're not. I don't know. It's possible the players and coaches themselves don't even know. But that won't stop them from having to answer the same questions about "hunger" and "drive" over and over this training camp. Obviously, their answers will reassure us that yes, hunger and drive are in adequate supply, because what else are they supposed to say? "Another championship? Eh, that sounds like a lot of work. I think we'll pass."
The most commonly hypothesized sources of motivation will include Kobe's quest to match Michael Jordan's six rings, winning one last championship for Phil (if we buy his claim that this is indeed his last year) and the organization's quest to match the Celtics' 17 NBA banners. All completely legit, even if Kobe will never admit to the first one.
One other source of motivation that neither Kobe nor any Laker will admit to? Anything at all involving the Miami Heat.
Follow Dex on Twitter here.