- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers opened up training camp in late September with the same amount of wins as losses (zero), a schedule that would accommodate plenty of practice time, Pau Gasol recovering from a lower-body injury (offseason knee surgery), Steve Nash less than 100 percent, Kobe Bryant sidelined completely because of his Achilles and a roster full of players with promise that hadn't proven yet whether they could perform individually -- let alone together -- at a high level in this league.
With the calendar flipping to December on Sunday, the Lakers open up the week with the same amount of wins as losses (nine), a schedule that will account for plenty of practice time (a rare four-day break before their next game), Gasol recovering from a lower-body injury (he plans to have an MRI exam on his right ankle Monday) and Nash less than 100 percent ...
All things equal so far. But let's finish the list.
... Bryant ramping up his workouts to the point that when Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni was asked about Bryant's playing in L.A.'s next game Friday in Sacramento, D'Antoni said, "It might happen, it might not," adding to a roster full of players with promise who continue to realize their potential both individually (personified by Xavier Henry scoring a career-high 27 points in L.A.'s 114-108 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday) and as a team (even with the Portland defeat, the Lakers have still won five of their last seven games).
Not bad, huh?
It's almost as if the Lakers get to press the reset button on their season this week, back to .500, with a mini training camp-like three straight practices looming and both Bryant and Nash appearing on the verge of returning to the mix.
Will this be the start of something good?
It's never as simple as ignoring the pitfalls of the past -- Gasol's health; Jordan Farmar's going out against Portland because of a right hamstring strain; Chris Kaman, one of the most candid players in the league, possibly just another DNP-CD away from rocking the boat -- to embrace the promise of future good fortunes. But the Lakers have good reason to feel as if things are lining up for them right now.
"This team is so great with one another that we look for each other and you never know who is going to be the high scorer for the game and who is going to be the guy every night," said Robert Sacre, who put up career highs in points (12) and rebounds (seven) against Portland in a performance that shouldn't be surprising for a team that has it stars change night to night as often as the next contestants on "The Price is Right" come on down the aisle. "I think once we add Kobe to it, it's the cherry on top."
Of course, Bryant has never been content to be the topping adorning the dessert. He's always operated more like the top banana in the banana split, so to speak.
Which raises the question if Bryant's return will be as much a challenge as it is a blessing in the early going, as he not only figures out a way to play basketball by himself for the first time competitively in nearly eight months, but also as he tries to play with mostly new teammates -- teammates who have developed an all-for-one identity without him.
"I think he's experienced and the way everybody looks up to him will translate to energy and communication and cohesiveness," Gasol said. "I believe the transition will be pretty smooth. It won't be too hard."
Nick Young said Bryant's return to full-fledged practice should simply make his teammates play harder.
"It's going to be competitive," Young said. "Kobe coming back, there's going to be a lot of trash talking. I just got to get mentally prepared, because I know he's trying to get after it. So, I'll try to make it real game-like for him."
Not only will that atmosphere benefit Bryant, but it should help incubate the formula for success that L.A. has developed so far this season. They win games based on playing tough and playing together. If the Lakers' best chance of winning is by outworking the other team, they sure better be working hard at practice.
"We got to get back into the lab," said Henry, another player who got to show his talents and hopefully grow his confidence with Bryant out. "We haven't taken too many days lightly, so when we go in there, we're deliberate."
Will they have to be accommodating? Or will Bryant's addition be like beginning the video game at a higher level than you were out when you hit reset?
"We're developing a nice group and there are some good things that are happening," D'Antoni said. "When he can come back, and I don't know if he can come back Friday, but whenever he comes back, we should be over .500. That's our goal and then we'll see. There will be an adjustment period."
They should get a head start on the adjustments with the way the schedule breaks this week, allowing them ample practice time.
"This [break] is probably good," D'Antoni said. "We have some guys with some [sore] ankles and Farmar [hurt] and trying to get Nash back and see where Kobe is. We got a lot of stuff we got to sort through. This won't hurt us."
That's an understatement. It could end up being just the help they need to finally form their team.
1dMicah Adams, ESPN Stats & Information
1dBaxter Holmes and Larry Coon