Nash will be the Lakers' best point guard since Magic—"He's high-octane gas in a Ferrari," says his former coach in Phoenix, Mike D'Antoni—but Howard will be the catalyst for an otherwise shaky defense. "That's going to be the key for us," says Gasol. "We're going to make some great plays and feel really good about ourselves, but sometimes, when you know you're better than your opponent, you don't work as hard."
With four starters on the downside of their careers and no credible bench, Vitti may feel as if he is holding this lineup together with Ace bandages. The trainer tested the moving patterns and alignment of every player before camp, and customized a list of exercises for them. Under his supervision Gasol has missed only one game in the past two years, World Peace two and Bryant eight. The newcomers haven't always been as healthy, but Howard never played fewer than 78 games before last season, and Nash hasn't been out for an extended period in more than a decade. "Yes, they're older," Vitti says, "but their histories are good."
Six days into camp Bryant was the last starter on the court after practice, standing just above the free throw line and going through basic ballhandling drills: one hard dribble between his legs, left hand to right, and a jumper. Then two dribbles between his legs, left to right and right to left, and another jumper. Over and over again, misses punctuated by profanities.
Two days later Howard was the last starter on the court after practice, wrestling in the post with Robert Sacre, the final pick in the draft. Sacre caught the ball on the left block, dribbled to the middle of the key, faked back to the left and shot a baby hook over his right shoulder. Howard, as if swatting an irksome gnat, sent the ball into a side court. Then he strolled over to Sacre on the baseline and patted his belly.
"It's O.K.," Howard said. He was not trying to bludgeon the rookie out of the NBA, but he was not allowing him to get comfortable, either. Howard is finding his place in the Laker constellation, neither merrymaker nor shark, but somewhere in between.