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Lakers will be patient with Kobe's return

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) - Although the Los Angeles Lakers are still uncertain when Kobe Bryant will be on the court this season, general manager Mitch Kupchak isn't pushing for an answer.

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The Lakers have plenty of work to keep them occupied in training camp until Bryant figures out when he'll be ready to join them.

Kupchak said Wednesday that the Lakers have ``no real expectations'' about the health of the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history.

``I do believe that he'll get back and he'll play this season,'' Kupchak said. ``You won't be able to look at him and say, `He was hurt.' In other words, some guys - like myself, when I hurt my knee, I always had a limp. You won't be able to tell (with Bryant). He'll get back on the court. He'll be healthy.''

Kupchak said Bryant was at the Lakers' training complex almost every morning this summer, working aggressively to return from mid-April surgery on his torn left Achilles tendon. Although the 35-year-old Bryant has made steady progress, he hasn't yet returned to the court for any basketball work - not in the Lakers' building, anyway.

``I've looked out my window (above the practice courts) now for three months, and he has not been on the basketball court one day,'' Kupchak said. ``But quite frankly, I'm wondering, at night, does he go to a gym somewhere?''

The Lakers will have their first practice of training camp Saturday. They're getting an early jump on the NBA season because of a preseason trip to China for two games against the Golden State Warriors.

Without Bryant and Dwight Howard, the Lakers will open camp with exponentially less fanfare than last season, when Howard and Steve Nash teamed up with Kobe and Pau Gasol to form a superteam that never achieved liftoff.

Los Angeles finished seventh in the Western Conference after Bryant was hurt late in the regular season, getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. The 16-time champion Lakers are nobody's pick to win another ring next summer - and with the Clippers' rise, they're not even the best team in their own city.

``I guess you'd say there's a little bit of an underdog tag on us, low expectations contrasting to a year ago,'' Kupchak said. ``It's night and day. ... It's hard to have expectations right now until we know when and how Kobe is going to return. You cannot sit down and pencil what you think your record may be until you know (when) one of the best players in the NBA is going to play and how he's going to play.''

Kupchak repeatedly made it clear the Lakers would never push Bryant to return. They've got enough work to do as coach Mike D'Antoni patches together a team that can compete in his absence.

The Lakers return this week without three projected starters from last season's team: Howard, Bryant and Metta World Peace. And though Gasol and Nash are fully healed from various injuries, they both will take it easy in training camp to preserve their over-30 bodies for a long season.

Kupchak is particularly excited about the prospects for Gasol, who patiently adapted his play to allow Andrew Bynum and Howard to shine in the low post over the past few seasons.

``If he's healthy, he's going to be an All-Star player,'' Kupchak said. ``He'll be the focal point of our play in the paint.''

Kupchak made only passing mention of Howard, who spurned the Lakers' lavish contract offer for a smaller deal in Houston after one rocky season in Los Angeles.

``For some reason, unbeknownst to me, this was not the place for him,'' Kupchak said.

Kupchak prefers to focus on the players who want to be with the Lakers - including Bryant, who doesn't have a contract for next season. Kupchak expects to sit down with Bryant this year to discuss the future, but he firmly echoed Bryant's repeated statements that he'll finish his career with the Lakers.

The Lakers will monitor Bryant daily, but they'll fill his starting spot with a combination of players likely including Jodie Meeks and Nick Young. When Kobe is ready to return, the Lakers expect more good times from the top scorer in club history.

``If we're down by two or we're down by three, the Kobe that we know and love is going to take the last shot, I do know that,'' Kupchak said. ``He may be limping and he may be dragging his leg, but he will take the last shot.''

AP NEWS
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The Associated Press
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