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These Lakers are vulnerable

LOS ANGELES -- Over his 16-year NBA career, Derek Fisher has probably answered more questions about injuries to teammate Kobe Bryant than anything that has ever ailed him.

The body part is immaterial. Only the strength of Bryant's will mattered. Fisher's answers always sound about the same.

"I can't speak for how much pain he's in, but I would guess that he'll probably figure out a way to play by Sunday," Fisher said of Bryant's latest war wound, a torn ligament in his right wrist that has him in doubt for Sunday's season opener against the Chicago Bulls.

"I'm not a gambling person. When I go to Vegas, I just visit family. But if I were to go to Vegas and do something like that, I would probably bet on it."

For Los Angeles Lakers fans and players, the storyline is well-worn and comforting. Kobe Bryant is different than everyone else. His healing powers are super human. His pain tolerance is off the charts. There is no injury that will keep him from playing. Not a finger or a toe or an ankle or a knee. So long as he can will himself to play, there is always a way.

Nothing about this latest injury suggests that it will be the one to end the Kobe is Superman narrative. His wrist might have been ominously wrapped Wednesday night, but every signal coming from the Lakers' camp was cautiously optimistic.

Still, this feels different. After everything that has gone wrong for the Lakers these past two weeks, the last thing they needed was this shoe to drop and remind everyone just how fragile this team's grip on NBA relevancy is now.

The Lakers already had a narrow path to success this season. They are older, less talented, less cohesive and less deep than at any other point in the past four years.

The locker room is a mess. There is no camaraderie to speak of. And, really, how could there be after everything that's happened?

Since the lockout was lifted, a steady rain has fallen on the Lakers. In two weeks they were attempting to replace a coaching legend, learn a new offense, a new defense, create a new culture and work in a half dozen new players while the front office was simultaneously planning to reboot all of what had made them back-to-back NBA champs two years ago.

After the NBA made the decision to veto the Lakers' proposed trade for point guard Chris Paul, any semblance of organizational trust or good tidings had been nuked.

Only the leadership of Fisher, the brilliance of Bryant, the technical skill of Pau Gasol and the potential of Andrew Bynum offered a bit of faith that this team might have one or two more bullets to fire at an NBA championship before it had to reinvent itself or the NBA's new guard decisively knocked it off its pedestal.

It was always only a matter of time. The question was just how much time this group of Lakers had left.

After Bryant's latest injury, even if he comes back to play Sunday and pronounces himself no worse for wear, it feels like the Lakers have less of it now because how vulnerable they look.

"Kobe is still really good, but the question is: Do you want to continue to build around Brett Favre or do you go with Aaron Rodgers and move on?" said a league executive, who asked not to be identified.

"The problem for the Lakers is they traded away their queen on the chessboard in Lamar Odom," the executive said. "He was the guy who could cover them. I still think they are going to be good because they have Kobe, Andrew and Pau. But a lot depends on whether Metta World Peace can find his game again and give them something."

The executive compared the Lakers of 2011 to the Boston Celtics after 2009. Older, slower, hungry still, but trying to hold on to something that can't be held on to for long.

It is a strange state to be in. One foot firmly planted in the present. The other foot knowing it needs to take a step forward, but not ready to do so.

"The Celtics kept Paul and Ray and KG around for too long and Danny [Ainge] tried to keep one foot in and one foot out by flipping Perkins for Jeff Green last year," the executive said.

"But if you do it a little bit at a time like that instead of all at once, you mess with the fabric of your team and then you might've been better off blowing the whole thing up all at once and starting over."

A few weeks ago, the Lakers almost did just that by agreeing to trade Gasol and Odom for Paul, then setting their sights on Dwight Howard in Orlando.

When the NBA vetoed the deal, it did more than just cancel a transaction. It fractured a franchise.

Raw skin and bone were left exposed. Egos were bruised beyond repair. Plans were blowtorched. Since then there has been time only for basketball, not healing. New coach Mike Brown has given his players so much information to chew on, they don't have time for anything else.

While most players have tried to block out the background noise, some of it still gets through. Too much about the present is too uncertain. Too much about the future is unknowable.

In the end it comes down to a simple question: Is this team still holding on to something real? Or is it just holding on?

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.