- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers were faced with a quandary when Dwight Howard bolted for Houston this summer: How do we field a competitive team for this season with the limited luxury tax-tampered tools available to us while still maintaining flexibility for the sure to be stocked free-agent summers of the future?
The route they chose to answer the problem was a dicey one. Load up on one-year contracts with the hopes of those players being grateful for the opportunity, rather than griping over touches with future millions at stake. Pursue former blue-chip prospects with the hopes they would prove to be late bloomers rather than brutal busts.
It was a plan that could feasibly work, but one that had to have a lot of things go right for it to do so.
"We've got about seven or eight question marks and you have to hit on five of them and you'll have a really good season," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said before his team's rousing 116-103 opening-night victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night at Staples Center. "It's our job to maximize what we have."
There were plenty of answers as the Lakers tipped things off by employing a fully functioning 11-man rotation that doled out 13 minutes or more of playing time to all but two of the players in uniform. The deep rotation resulted in 76 bench points, the third-most in a game by a Lakers reserve unit.
"I think we got a lot of guys that in many ways have been written off," Steve Nash said at shootaround Tuesday, about 12 hours before the Lakers shocked the basketball world. "Young and old. Obviously, a lot of people see me at the end of the road and see a lot of our acquisitions this year as guys that couldn't last in certain situations, that were let go or bounced around from team to team. So for us it's a matter of trying to find a way to play together, create an identity so we can make each other better and to play with a little chip on our shoulder and find that little bit of extra between us that maybe we don't have individually."
Leading the Lakers' version of the Island of Misfit Toys against the Clippers was a guy whose teammates don't even know how to pronounce his name after spending more than a month together through training camp.
"I don't even worry about it," Xavier (pronounced ZAV-ee-aye) Henry said after scoring a career high 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting and hauling in six rebounds. "A lot of them call me 'X,' 'Zav,' 'Zay.' They make it work. They know that I know when they're calling me, so it doesn't matter to me."
Henry, a 22-year-old who was selected with the 12th pick by Memphis in 2010, will make himself a household name if he keeps this up.
"His talent level is as good as anybody, anywhere," D'Antoni said before the game.
Henry averaged 11.9 points and 2.4 rebounds in the preseason after exploding onto the scene with 29 points in the exhibition opener, a game that the Lakers also happened to win.
But there was still some doubt.
"When the lights come on, can he do it?" D'Antoni wondered. "His shooting is improved. You tell him one thing -- he was driving all the time with his head down -- and you say, 'You got to kick it out some,' and the next game he kicks it out 2-3 times. So, if he can learn like that and he can understand it and get into a game like that, he can be really good."
That's the feast-or-famine nature of Henry. If he puts together a solid season, he joins Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak's collection of success stories of discarded talent turned reclamation projects with the likes of Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown, Jordan Hill and Earl Clark.
If he doesn't, he ends up like Adam Morrison, never able to fulfill the promise he once showed. Of course, the Lakers never relied on Morrison. If they are to make some noise this season, they'll have to rely on guys such as Henry and Hill and Wesley Johnson and Nick Young and Shawne Williams -- all former first-round picks -- to tap into the potential they once showed.
"I've never changed my mind about what kind of player I am, how hard I've worked and what kind of player I can be on the court," Henry said.
If Henry's debut with the Lakers seems almost too good to be true, maybe an acceptable explanation is destiny. Even though Henry's first three seasons with Memphis and New Orleans were marked by inconsistent play and D-League assignments, one of the bright spots in that dark time actually came in a Grizzlies game against the Lakers his rookie season.
Henry was matched up with Kobe Bryant that night, helping hold him to 9-for-25 shooting while scoring 12 points of his own in a 98-96 win.
"Oh yeah, Kobe missed 11 shots in a row," Henry said, recalling the game. "I had a pretty good game. I was about 18 or so. It was a good game against the Lakers, but now I'm on the other side and I like it."
And the Lakers have to like that the first step of their admittedly convoluted plan was a smashing success. Literally. The play of the night was Henry hammering home a fast-break dunk and getting into Chris Paul's face for a split second afterward.
"That was just a wake me up," Henry said. "I just got in the game not too long ago, and when I got in I got a dunk. That's just 'Hey, we're here. We're playing with you.'"
And maybe, just maybe, the Lakers are playing with a plan that can pan out, as improbable as that might seem.