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Kobe Bryant returns for uncertain Lakers season

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, gestures

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, gestures to count a basket as forward Wesley Johnson, center, and forward Julius Randle react as referees nullify it during the second half of a preseason game against the Utah Jazz, Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: AP / Mark J. Terrill

LOS ANGELES - Byron Scott realizes he got his dream coaching job at a time when the Los Angeles Lakers are much closer to their absolute worst than their hallowed best.

Kobe Bryant knows he's playing with what appears to be the least impressive group of Lakers in his remarkable NBA career.

They're both determined to make the best of a difficult situation as their 16-time champion franchise stumbles back from its most miserable season since moving from Minneapolis to the West Coast.

"I love the fact that pretty much everyone has written us off," said Scott, the former Lakers guard. "That's obviously fuel to the fire. I'm going to use that to talk to our players about how people are viewing us as a basketball team. I love the fact that everybody is doubting us."

Everybody has pretty good reason, though: The Lakers' 27-55 record last year was their worst in a half-century, and they missed the playoffs for just the third time in 38 years. They didn't significantly upgrade their roster after whiffing on every big free agent, and they're relying on a shaky core just to challenge for a playoff spot.

Publicly, Bryant is optimistic about the opportunity to create a new Lakers identity. He is also leaping and moving with his usual fluidity after missing the 2013 playoffs and all but six games last season with two major injuries.

"We're going to be smash-mouth basketball, man," Bryant said. "That's just how we're going to play. It's going to be nasty. It's going to be physical. We're a grind-it-out team. Our personalities are just that way, the guys that we have on the floor. We're all guys that put their hard hats on."

But Bryant is without Pau Gasol, who ditched the Lakers after seven seasons for a contender in Chicago. Jordan Farmar and Jodie Meeks also followed Gasol out the free-agent door as Los Angeles acquired Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer during the summer.

And the Lakers are still hoping to get one good season out of Steve Nash, who has spent the last two years hobbled by injuries. But the 40-year-old guard already tweaked his back while lifting luggage this month, and the Lakers increasingly realize they can't count on the two-time MVP.

"I don't have any expectations right now," Scott said. "When Steve and I talk, and I talk to (trainer) Gary Vitti, it's all about just day-to-day right now. ... So right now, we've got to just kind of assume that he's not going to play every game, obviously. "

Nash's bellboy proclivities aren't the Lakers' only health concern. They lost a league-worst 319 man-games to injury last season, and they're already off to an awful start with major injuries for Nick Young and Xavier Henry.

Here are some other things to watch when the Lakers return:

DEFENSE FIRST?: Scott's primary goal is to turn the Lakers into a dominant defensive team, even with a roster featuring no real center and comprised largely of players who have never shown inclinations toward shutdown defense. Bryant likes the change after the Lakers yielded 109.2 points per game last season. "We've got to really tighten up defensively, which is a different style than we're used to playing," Bryant said. "But it's a fun style. You've just got to be more aggressive, get down in the passing lanes and take more chances."

KEEP IT FRESH: Bryant is the Lakers' best hope for a bright season, but he's also fighting the cumulative wear of 18 NBA seasons. Kobe is famous for checking himself into games and playing for however many minutes he wants, but that's apparently about to change. Scott has discussed a minutes limit with Bryant, and the former teammates appear to have an understanding. Scott won't say the number, but their target is likely several minutes under 40.

KEEPING PACE: The Lakers ran the NBA's second-fastest offense last season under Mike D'Antoni, even though the scheme hardly seemed to suit their roster. After running the court last year, the Lakers are likely to slow things down. Scott is implementing a multifaceted approach with elements of the Princeton offense, which should allow the Lakers to play to their few strengths.

HEY ROOK: The Lakers think they got a steal with the seventh overall pick when 19-year-old power forward Julius Randle fell to them. Randle was thrilled to land with his favorite NBA team, and he seemed likely to be a starter before the Lakers unexpectedly won Boozer on amnesty waivers. The combination actually might work out well for both men: Boozer could be a mentor to Randle, while the rookie can keep Boozer's minutes down to maximum effectiveness.

NO TANKS: One number to keep in mind if the Lakers sink this season: Their 2015 first-round draft pick has been traded to Phoenix, but it's top-five protected. If the Lakers finish in the league's bottom five, they'll be able to add another valuable piece to their rebuild. Scott and general manager Mitch Kupchak have said the Lakers would never tank, but if the Lakers struggle, that top-five pick could be tantalizing.


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