LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant hasn’t even really sprinted.
What he has done is gradually build toward a higher speed while running, which isn’t nearly as tough a test on his Achilles tendon as exploding from a standstill. He definitely has not done any cutting or tried typical basketball moves yet.
It’d be a shame if there wasn’t much to see in the showdown in two weeks against the star who left Bryant behind (Dwight Howard), and the shooting guard (James Harden) who knocked Bryant from the top spot among shooting guards for the first time in the 12-year history of NBA.com’s poll of general managers.
But you knew Bryant wasn’t practicing yet. Let’s be clear about the Lakers’ other Hall of Fame guard, too: Steve Nash has barely practiced in training camp.
Nash has played some in most of the games to test himself, but Pau Gasol acknowledged Tuesday night he is “a little bit concerned” about a creaky Nash, 39, not being able to give the Lakers much in the real season—a week away.
So far, it has left the Lakers to develop completely without Bryant and largely without Nash.
The reflexive analysis is that means it’s going to be a struggle to develop this team’s identity. The ball is, well, supposed to be in the hands of Bryant or Nash.
Here’s the flip side of that: The face of this team so far is a little bit of everyone—with a Mike D’Antoni mustache imprint on top.
For the Lakers to be much better than is expected this season, they need an awful lot from an awful lot of somewhat/largely anonymous dudes. And those dudes in practice—not as much in exhibition games, with the Lakers entering their game vs. Utah on Tuesday night last in the NBA in field-goal percentage at 38.4 percent—have developed a sense of their community.
There’s one best example for the way the Lakers really need to be entering this season: Jordan Farmar.
He’s under the radar, not a guy any mainstream NBA fan is thinking about these days, but he’s better than people think and can do a lot more than he ever has before in D’Antoni’s system with D’Antoni’s license to play free.
“It’s not just me,” Farmar said. “Everybody has that freedom.”
There is more maturity and team thinking from Farmar now than in his first go-around with the Lakers, and he was proud that he didn’t take a single shot in the first half Tuesday night as he looked to help others get going.
Then he got going in the second half. It happened not just with his 20 second-half points to key a Lakers victory, but with his full-court pressure that wipes away the opposition’s shot clock and will be a staple of the team whenever Farmar is in.
Farmar had also been in an ugly free-throw slump only to take the technical free throw the Lakers were given, which made D’Antoni smile.
“That takes guts to walk up there,” D’Antoni said. “That’s how he is.”
Considering Nash, Bryant and Steve Blake were all already here, it’s valid to question how much Farmar can add as a ball-handling guard. Then again, all three of those guys were hurt last postseason, and the Lakers had no chance against the Spurs with Darius Morris at the point.
That backdrop, Farmar’s confidence and D’Antoni’s encouragement, have enabled Farmar to be an immediate leader on this team, believe it or not.
And he’s sure he’s going to play even with the two Steves around.
“We’re honestly going to have a three-point-guard lineup,” Farmar said. “There are going to be a lot of games where Steve Nash probably doesn’t play; there may be some games where somebody might be hurt and play limited minutes. There will be a lot of opportunity for all three of us.”
With how little Bryant and Nash have done in training camp, and with Gasol as welcoming a top player as there is, a clear impression has been left: Everyone has an opportunity.
D’Antoni is the anti-Phil Jackson in one clear sense: Jackson has been able to connect with his superstars fabulously and navigate those egos, while D’Antoni has done some really fine work with guys people hardly know. He empowers the role players and has the strategic acumen to put them in advantageous matchups.
So in a weird way, the absence of Bryant and the limitations of Nash have given D’Antoni his most comfortable zone to nurture this team. And he must get more from the lesser lights. It is the first prerequisite.
And you’d better believe Bryant agrees. Whether Bryant was a hard-headed youngster or is a demanding veteran leader, the way to earn his respect has been the same: Be good all on your own.
Show that you don’t need him. Send him the same message that he has sent so many people—especially Lakers teammates—over the years:
If you’re not going for it, I will.
In 1999, with Phil Jackson trying to structure his first Lakers team around Shaquille O’Neal’s interior force, Bryant happened to break his wrist early in the first exhibition game. Not only did it move the Lakers to sign Brian Shaw, it allowed the team’s identity—ultimately a championship identity that held through three seasons—to be established early. Bryant still found ways to give the team his passion and creativity.
In 2007, Bryant had demanded a trade and was detached from the team in training camp. The other Lakers, especially Andrew Bynum, developed their own enthusiasm, energy and execution, which Bryant eventually recognized and came to appreciate. The Lakers got good, Gasol came in trade later, and three consecutive NBA Finals trips followed.
The story of 2013 projects to a smaller scale but the same idea.
“It’s a lot of positive energy all the time,” Farmar said.
About Bryant, D’Antoni said, “We just do our thing, and then when he comes in, it’ll just add to it.”
Can Bryant’s teammates go for it as if he doesn’t exist—communicating to him that they have a drive he should respect, and challenging him to earn his alpha-dog status?
Three opening games in four nights against the Clippers, Warriors and Spurs will test this no-name band of brothers.
By the end of next week, we’ll see if the Lakers have sold anyone on the premise that they are actually a good team that Bryant can make great.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.