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Sunday, November 7, 2010
Lakers' early success is all about team

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- They say that when it's right, you'll just know.

The stars line up, you never fight, those butterflies in your stomach linger. You can't imagine life any other way.

We're six games into this Los Angeles Lakers season, so maybe it's a little premature to go into a full-fledged swoon. It's just that after so many years of feeling like the team was missing a coat check near its locker room, where petty delusions of self-aggrandizement could be stowed, everything just feels so right about this group.

Lakers
The Lakers have developed a trust in each other early on.

The Lakers may not be entirely healthy, but so far everyone seems happy and, with a core group of guys who have stayed together for a handful of years now, pretty wise to what needs to be done to win another title.

In the early part of this decade, even when the Lakers were winning championships, the room never felt big enough for the egos of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.

So O'Neal was shipped out. But instead of the move settling the issue, Bryant's id seemed to fill the space vacated by O'Neal's size 23 shoes. Bryant won a scoring title but nearly got himself traded to Pluto, or wherever it was he asked to be sent.

It took four years until the Lakers found a guy Bryant respected enough to share the ball with -- Pau Gasol. Bryant stopped feeling like he had to score 40 points a night for his team to win.

After that, the Lakers managed to strike a certain harmony in the playoffs to win back-to-back titles, but you always got the sense the young guys coming off the bench were never particularly happy about their roles.

What started as a small issue became an undercurrent capable of undermining the team's goals. The Lakers won, but it was almost as if they had to swim against an internal riptide to do so.

This season, that already feels different.

"I remember a few years ago when we had a 'Bench Mob,' in fact they gave themselves their own nickname," Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons said, "but somewhere along the line things changed and the bench wasn't as potent on a consistent basis as we thought they were going to be at the beginning of the year.

"This year's bench, I really don't think the bench guys want to be starters. They are happy to be in this particular situation and they want to do whatever they can to help us be a good team and ultimately try and win a championship."

Former Bench Mob member Jordan Farmar wanted to stretch his wings and test himself as a starter in the NBA, and you can't fault him for that. Any good player would want to do that at some point in his career. And Farmar, to his credit, never let his ambition turn into a public spectacle. His frustrations stayed in-house for the most part, even though they were obvious.

As Farmar once told me, "I'd definitely love to be able to play more, to start. But this is the sacrifice you make to be home and to be a champion."

The key word in that statement is "sacrifice." I haven't heard that word out of Steve Blake or Matt Barnes since they signed with the Lakers.

Another scene that stands out from last season came before a midseason game, when Lamar Odom went around the locker room asking members of the Lakers' second unit whether they looked to shoot or pass first when they got the ball.

Odom is generally one of the more laid-back guys on the team, so this was about as in-your-face as he'd ever been. When he got to Sasha Vujacic, who has a shoot-first reputation, things got a little awkward when Vujacic stammered at Odom's line of questioning.

Vujacic's work ethic is unquestioned and he has shown a willingness to sacrifice his offensive game for defense, but it's telling that he is the guard who has fallen furthest out of the rotation in these first six games.

"If you're on a good team and you know you're good, you want to play," Cleamons said, when asked how a good team like the Lakers balances competitive drive with the selflessness required to win a championship.

"You know the pecking order and if you're comfortable with it, you know that at a certain point in time it'll be your time to play," he said. "So you get your body, mind and spirit ready to go in the game and do what you do.

"That's a maturity factor. It's what it's like looking through veteran eyes."

So things are great now. Everything feels so right. The question is: Is this the start of a long and beautiful relationship? Or just a honeymoon stage?

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.