10:30 PM ET, October 27, 2009
STAPLES Center, Los Angeles, CA
The Los Angeles Lakers might be more talented now than they were four months ago when they won the NBA title. That's if they can stay healthy.
The in-town rival Clippers hope the addition of No. 1 overall draft pick Blake Griffin will help them join the Lakers as playoff contenders again -- but they'll have to wait a while to see what impact their rookie will have.
Moments after the franchise's 15th NBA championship banner is raised, the Lakers look to open their 50th anniversary season with a ninth straight victory over the Griffin-less Clippers on Tuesday night at Staples Center.
After going 65-17, the Lakers advanced to the finals for the second consecutive season and beat Orlando in five games for their first championship since 2002.
Kobe Bryant, who averaged 26.8 points during the regular season and earned Finals MVP honors, won his fourth title and first without Shaquille O'Neal. It was also coach Phil Jackson's fourth with Los Angeles and record-10th overall.
At 64 years old, Jackson feels fit enough to return for the final year of his contract and guide a team that could be better than the one that averaged 106.9 points a game -- third-best in the league -- last season.
"On paper we certainly are a better team," Jackson said, "but sometimes it's chemistry that counts between players and how they work together."
Artest, who averaged 17.1 points and 5.2 rebounds in 69 games last season for the Rockets, joins Andrew Bynum (14.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg), Pau Gasol (18.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 3.5 apg) and Lamar Odom (11.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg) to provide support for Bryant.
"We have the talent to win another one," said Bryant, who begins his 14th season in Los Angeles. "If we don't, it's because of our lack of focus or something else or an injury here or there."
The key could be staying healthy, something they were able to do for the most part in 2008-09, but not in the preseason.
Gasol sat out the Lakers' final six preseason games because of a strained right hamstring, and seems unlikely to play in the opener. Odom, who married reality TV starlet Khloe Kardashian on the eve of training camp and then missed time because of a leg injury, could start in his place.
Bynum, who missed 32 games after tearing his MCL last season and was basically ineffective when he returned for the playoffs, averaged 20.8 points in his previous 12 contests before being injured Jan. 31.
"He's talking about wearing two (knee) braces this year," Jackson said of Bynum, who expects to play in the opener despite missing two preseason games because of a strained right rotator cuff and sore left hamstring. "He's talking about hopefully making the All-Star team and that's a good goal."
Key reserve Luke Walton also sat out during training camp with a sore back.
"We understand the challenge of winning another one. We have to be lucky, making sure guys stay healthy and stay strong," Bryant said.
Coming off a 19-63 season, the Clippers -- believe they have a strong enough roster to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Before they worry about the postseason, however, the Clippers must worry about Griffin's health. The team confirmed late Monday night that the top draft pick has a broken left kneecap that could sideline him for six weeks.
The Clippers, who ranked near the bottom of the NBA averaging 95.1 points a game last season, had been banking on the potential of the 6-foot-10 Griffin. He led the Big 12 with 22.7 points per game for Oklahoma last season while ranking first in the nation with 14.4 rebounds per game.
Despite straining his shoulder during the NBA Summer League, Griffin averaged 19.2 points and 10.8 rebounds in those games.
"He looks like he has a world of talent," said Bryant, who's averaged 24.6 points in his career against the Clippers but has been held under 20 in six of the last seven meetings. "He seems very polished. I think all he has to do is get used to the NBA game."
Griffin feels comfortable despite knowing the Clippers have recorded two winning seasons in the last 30 years.
"I don't feel like a lot of individual pressure to go out and do this or that," Griffin said. "We have guys that can do all this stuff. I just need to come in and contribute."
After averaging 21.8 points for Golden State in 2007-08, Davis put up 14.9 in 65 games for the Clippers last season.
Kaman, meanwhile, was a coming off a season where he set career highs with 15.7 points and 12.7 rebounds per game, but a foot injury limited him to 31 games in 2008-09.
Despite some subpar performances from veteran players, the Clippers are encouraged by the play of their young talent. Guard Eric Gordon, the seventh overall pick in 2008, averaged 16.1 points as a rookie, and second-year forward Al Thornton averaged 16.8 points and 5.2 boards in 2008-09.
The Clippers also traded for veteran Rasual Butler, who averaged a career-high 11.2 points last season for New Orleans.
The Lakers are 31-9 against the Clippers at Staples Center, which has been home to both teams since 1999-2000. They haven't lost in this series since a 118-110 defeat April 12, 2007.