Toward the end of a recent practice, Dwight Howard hovered over the ball rack in the Lakers' facility and idly picked up the basketballs one by one as if he were inspecting grapefruits in the produce aisle.
After palming the regulation-size basketballs with ease, Howard turned his attention to the "Big Ball," an oversized basketball with a 36-inch circumference (opposed to the regulation 29.5-inch). The big man scooped the Big Ball up with no problem, throwing his arm around it every which way as the comically large ball stayed suctioned to his hand.
Soon after the 26-year-old Howard placed the ball down, the 34-year-old Kobe Bryant came over and placed his noticeably smaller hand up to Howard's big mitt.
The symbolism was easy to see. You could interpret it as both Kobe and Dwight having their fingerprints all over everything the Lakers do this season. You could also see it as Bryant and Howard already being hand in hand, ensuring team harmony.
Even without any deeper analysis, it's important to note that it happened.
The exchange encapsulated just how different last season's lockout-shortened training camp was compared to the way this year's camp already feels like.
There is room to breathe this time.
There is space for those natural, hard-to-measure but oh-so-valuable camaraderie-building moments to occur. There is opportunity for the basketball geniuses the Lakers have collected to share their knowledge of the game with one another. There's a palpable, positive vibe surrounding the daily proceedings.
Even before training camp started, there were other Lakers teammates coming together like Bryant and Howard. Steve Nash invited Steve Blake and Chris Duhon to Phoenix for a sort of Point Guard Summit, where the trio not only got to know one another and form a bond off the court, but to also put in what Lakers coach Mike Brown likes to call "sweat equity" on the court. It will be their jobs, ultimately, to make the new offense work and so they took it upon themselves to put their heads together and learn it.
It was a far cry from the offseason activity Blake and a teammate were involved with last summer, when he and Shannon Brown got into a public disagreement over which collective bargaining proposal Blake was in favor of.
The start of last season felt rushed at best, awkward most of the time and downright doomed at worst. The lockout that lasted all the way into December ruined the rhythm an NBA season is supposed to have. The overruled Chris Paul deal left Pau Gasol exposed as trade bait, led to Lamar Odom's ouster to the team that beat the Lakers the year before and was a foreboding sign of the haphazard season the Lakers had ahead of them.
Training camp was microwaved instead of slow-roasted. Rather than a month worth of practices and eight exhibition games to get his team ready for the season, all Brown had was two weeks, two exhibition games and an intrasquad scrimmage.
"This (year) is fun," Brown said. "And it's fun from the standpoint that you can make sure that you're taking this one step at a time, that you're really using this as a process and you're not trying to get to the end of the journey right away."
Last season, during one of the team's first practices, Brown was running up and down the court, yelling at the top of his lungs and literally jumping up and down during a 5-on-5 scrimmage. It came off as frenetic rather than energetic. It was activity mistaken for achievement, as the late John Wooden would say.
After not even being allowed to make a phone call or send a text to any of his players during the lockout, you couldn't blame Brown for his enthusiasm for wanting to dig in and form his new team, but there was just too much ground to cover in too little time.
Fast forward to the start of training camp this year, and Brown can be seen calmly making his way from one side of the court to the other, checking in on the starters and then the substitutes, delegating responsibilities to his assistant coaches.
Brown went the first three days of this year's training camp without even having his players go 5-on-5. He can teach the way he wants to teach. Spend one day on defense. Spend the next on the new Princeton-style offense the Lakers are implementing. He can marinate.
His coaching staff, much of it new, also has it much better than the guys did last year.
Eddie Jordan has replaced John Kuester as the de facto offensive coordinator. Kuester -- who has since been reassigned as an East Coast scout -- had a finite amount of time to tailor some sort of offense to best serve three post-up players in Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Gasol. He had the unenviable task of telling a core of players that had won multiple championships with the triangle offense that they had to do it a different way. And he had to do it without having the benefit of establishing trust and a relationship with the guys beforehand because, like Brown, he was forbidden from communication during the lockout. Jordan, meanwhile, has been in the gym with Lakers players all summer long. He even went to Las Vegas during USA Basketball training camp to personally meet Bryant and plant the first seeds of his Princeton sets in Bryant’s mind man to man, face to face.
Steve Clifford and Bernie Bickerstaff are in too, replacing Ettore Messina and Quin Snyder, who left to coach CSKA Moscow together.
Messina waited more than 20 years coaching in Europe for the right time to come to the NBA and had such a difficult experience because of the lockout-shortened season that he jumped at the first chance to go back overseas. He never found his comfort zone.
Snyder became the most popular coach on the staff with the team, which isn't the safest person to be when you're working for a coach in his first year with the team who is still trying to establish his own job security. Snyder took a deal worth around $750,000 a year to be Messina's associate head coach, according to sources.
Clifford comes in with an existing relationship with Howard, having coached him in Orlando the last five years. Bickerstaff has known Brown for two decades and gave him his first job in the league. Their roles are more clearly defined than Messina's and Snyder's were. There is already a real sense of purpose from the staff this year.
And of course the players are night and day. Everyone tried to convince themselves that last year's offseason acquisitions of Troy Murphy, Jason Kapono and Josh McRoberts would suffice, when really a haul like Howard, Nash, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks is the stuff that championships are made of.
All of that change is a lot for any group to handle and it would be natural if the weight of expectations pressured everyone involved, but the Lakers seems to be blocking all of that out. The early attitude the team is adopting is that with this personnel, if they go about everything the right way from the beginning, their championship goal is entirely possible.
"These (past) two years have been a little rough just because we didn't accomplish the things we wanted to accomplish," Gasol said. "We had a lot of stuff going on, but it's good to put all that behind us and take this year as the most important year we have. We have a great opportunity here and we have to dedicate ourselves to it so we can make this a successful year."
Back to Howard and the Big Ball. Gasol actually matched his hand up to Howard's after Bryant did. Howard said his and Gasol's hands were the same size.
Then the three of them discussed the best way to pass back out to the perimeter when the ball was in the post. A little breathing room created the opportunity for some genuine camaraderie, which in turn allowed for an impromptu meeting of basketball minds to occur.
As big as the expectations are for the Lakers this season, they're taking the time to do the little things and more important they have the time to do the little things. That could make all the difference.