Lakers miss Kobe Bryant's drive

LOS ANGELES -- He sits in the second row these days, his goals taking a back seat as his Los Angeles Lakers teammates try and manage without him.

It used to be that any team with Kobe Bryant on it fashioned itself a championship contender because he wouldn't have it any other way, and, well, the last time it was any other he wanted to be traded to Pluto.

When you think of yourself as a championship contender, things look different than if you're simply trying to make the playoffs. Games mean more. Momentum matters. A loss in a winnable game like Friday's 91-85 defeat to the Tim Duncan-less San Antonio Spurs comes back to bite you in April as you jockey for home-court advantage.

The longer Bryant is sitting in that second row however, the less this team seems to be thinking of itself as a championship contender.

It's not so much that they don't believe or that they don't want it. It's just different when a maniacal competitor like Bryant is in your face every day in practice and during games, pushing that agenda.

Bryant's focus, when he's able to play, is intense and singular. He once described any year he didn't win a championship as "a wasted year of my life," and he has never backed off that statement. As one former teammate joked over the summer when I asked if there really was a chance Bryant could win another title, "I don't know. But he'll die trying."

That competiveness is still there, it's just in street clothes right now. And out of necessity, Bryant's focus is locked in on his recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon, not calling out or correcting his teammates.

"It's tough when you're sidelined for so long to not feel a part of the process," Bryant said Friday before the loss to San Antonio. "To a certain level, it's always going to be that way because you're not out there every day on the practice court with them, or even watching them practice, for that matter, because you're doing treatment, you're working out, you're doing things like that. So, it's very easy to kind of lose that connectivity."

Which in turn makes it very easy for the team to lose its connectivity to Bryant and his goals.

Those goals are shared by the organization and veterans like Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, whose only reasons for being here are the pursuit of a championship.

And no one is saying that the other guys in the locker room don't want to win or believe it's possible. But there's a difference in wanting to win and needing to, between being 25 years old and trying to carve out a place in this league and being 35 and trying to put the finishing touches on a legacy.

It's why you see the Lakers play three so very different games to start the season. The first, an opening night win against the Clippers, was everything you'd hope for from a young team that had been dissed and dismissed all summer. The second, a drubbing at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, was the emotional letdown you'd expect from a young team that might have been feeling itself a bit too much after that opening win. The third, an ugly game against a similarly starless Spurs team, is what happens when a veteran group that has honed its game and system over many years plays a team still trying to figure out its rotations.

The Lakers played 11 men Friday night in all sorts of combinations. Coach Mike D'Antoni is experimenting, to say the least. No roles have been defined, much less solidified yet.

There is a belief that there is enough talent in the room to make a run at it. There is also a fear that Bryant won't come back in time to mesh with that talent and mold it the right way.

"We're definitely contending for a playoff spot. That's everybody's mindset," young forward Wes Johnson said. "We're definitely going to take one game at a time, but that's the ultimate goal."

What about a championship?

Johnson nodded and said that was "reachable," too. It was exactly what he should've said, and probably the only thing he could've said.

The Lakers aren't on anybody's list of championship contenders right now. Not with Bryant in street clothes, Nash hobbled by various injuries and a loaded Western Conference ahead of them.

Their goals have to be narrow right now. Win the games they should, steal some of the games they shouldn't, find enough common ground to move forward together.

And then at some point, work Bryant back into the mix and see what happens.