HONOLULU -- Maybe it's the general tropical nuttiness that is Waikiki, where the Lakers are staying. Or maybe it's holding the first two days of training camp at a high school, conjuring up the time in everyone's life when anything seemed possible. (Heightened by the fact that the school, Iolani, considers anything less than four state championships in a year as a major disappointment, based on the wall banners.) Or maybe the Lakers have just decided to take a page out of Stuart Smalley's book and eliminate their many shortcomings with blammer rays of positive thinking.
Whatever the explanation, and no matter how fragile the Lakers may look to the rest of the planet, inside the purple-and-gold bubble it's all rosy. It's as if last season's 15-25 closing swoon and perfunctory first-round playoff dispatch by Phoenix never happened and Kobe Bryant never called the front office out for expecting anything different.
Whether it was Ronny Turiaf cheering a Brian Cook pull-up jumper ("I see you, Cookie!") as if it were a Game 7 or GM Mitch Kupchak feigning ignorance of any offseason hullaballoo involving Kobe or Lamar Odom nodding toward Kwame Brown and predicting "he's going to be one of the best players in the NBA," all that was missing were Jack Nicholson, Chief and little paper cups with brightly colored meds.
"Expectations aren't very high and that's OK with me," said Kupchak, startling the crowd of beat writers hearing it as much as it probably did you just now reading it. Then he clarified his logic: "All I keep reading is we're not a very good team. Obviously, I disagree with that. We feel that if we stay healthy, we've got a good team."
Oooookkkayyyy, except you can't stay as something you're not. Odom is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and isn't allowed to scrimmage. Same with Brown, recovering from both shoulder and ankle surgery. Center Andrew Bynum took part but had been forced to shut down his training-camp preparations because of a sore tendon above his right calf.
If none of that is reason for alarm, it's also not exactly a cause for celebration. Especially in Lakerland, where just being good is hardly the accepted standard. Or, at least, was.
The optimism is reminiscent of training camp last year, only that was far more understandable. The Lakers had just won 45 games with an 11-3 closing burst and scared the bejeezus out of the Suns over seven games. Smush Parker looked as if he'd found a game and a home. So had Kwame. Vladimir Radmanovic was still a hot-shooting free agent acquisition, not a lousy, lying snowboarder.
Now? All early indications are that Bynum isn't ready to make a significant impact, Odom is still distracted by the infant son who died last summer and Radmanovic's hunger to make up for his mishap last winter appears bite-sized. There were doubts Mihm would ever play again after two ankle surgeries and now he's the starting center.
In short, matching last year's 11-5 start could be a challenge with 10 of their first 16 opponents being '06-07 playoff teams.
The premise, of course, is that precise execution and one great player is enough to win a championship, as San Antonio proved just a few months ago. The first difference is that, as a big man, Tim Duncan can do infinitely more to make the game easier for his teammates than a shooting guard, no matter how talented, and the Spurs' supporting cast has been carefully handpicked to make the most of Duncan's abilities, which certainly can't be said about the Lakers and Kobe.
The second difference is that the Spurs have enough talent to shift the offensive burden off Duncan, allowing him to anchor their defense. Bryant demonstrated with Team USA that he has defensive-player-of-the-year ability, but Jackson also talked about making him more of an offensive facilitator this season, which will require expending a lot more energy than isolating on the wing, as he did last season. Oh, and Jackson also wants to fast break more, with Kobe leading the charge. Oh, but he still wants the primary focus of the team to be ball possession, which means defense and rebounding, categories in which the Lakers were decidedly in the league's bottom half.
Amidst the mildly stupefying tropical air and relentless sun, inside a dimly-lit high school gym with forgiving rims and an extra-soft floor, charged by Jackson's authoritative tone, it all seems plausible.
Too bad the season has to be played a couple thousand miles away, under starkly different conditions.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.