Kobe Bryant walked gingerly across the Lakers' practice floor, a sign he's both progressing surrounding his surgically repaired left Achilles tendon and eager for the 2013-14 season to start.
It's also a sign that, despite a skeptical general public, Bryant remains optimistic about the Lakers' championship prospects.
"Our expectations are always the same with every single season," Bryant said. "That's to improve every single day with the mindset to win a championship."
Of course, that goal hinges on Bryant. But whether he will play in the Lakers' season opener Oct. 29 against the Clippers or practice in training camp remains anybody's guess. Bryant has recently run at 80 percent of his body weight on a weight-bearing treadmill and completed ladder exercises to improve his footwork without sprinting. He then will advance to defensive and conditioning drills before fully practicing.
"I need to get in shape, but it doesn't really take me long to do that," Bryant said. "I work hard at it. When I get back on the court, I'll be good to go. I don't think I've ever played a season where I was 100 percent. So, like 78 percent, is fine."
The Lakers have other health concerns.
Lakers guard Steve Nash has fully progressed from his right hamstring, back and broken left leg that sidelined him for a combined 32 games last season. But Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni plans to limit Nash both in training camp and in games. Lakers forward Pau Gasol reported progress with his knees after having a procedure this offseason to decrease the tendon pain in his knees. But Gasol admits he's not fully healed and hasn't completed many basketball drills yet.
"Health is always a concern," Bryant said. "That can really cripple a team as it did for us last year."
Bryant suffered the injury April 12, shattering any optimism on the Lakers' already slim playoff hopes. Their success will ride once again on when Bryant returns and if he can mirror last season's output when he averaged 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting, six assists and 5.6 rebounds.
"I'll wait until I'm ready to go," Bryant said. "Our goal is to win a championship. That's our expectation. But if we're struggling and I can't go because I'm physically not ready, I'm not going to jump out."
Nonetheless, Bryant seemed aggressive with his recovery.
He had surgery on his Achilles the day after his injury. The Lakers' training staff traveled with Bryant on trips to China, Italy and Brazil. Bryant also routinely visited the team's facility for treatment.
Still, Bryant's 40-foot high dive that was later posted on Vine made the Lakers cringe.
"I got out and jumped again; I just didn't Vine that," Bryant said with a grin. "I felt great. I just wanted to go out and have fun."
Bryant displayed that personality until someone brought up Dwight Howard's departure to the Houston Rockets.
"I really don't give a ..," Bryant said. "If he came back, it would've been great. If he didn't, then it's not."
Instead, Bryant raved about the team's athleticism, the versatility Chris Kaman and Gasol have in the post and having a full training camp under D'Antoni.
Bryant still shared the need for Nick Young and Wesley Johnson to improve defensively and to play at a methodical pace. Despite all the uncertainty surrounding his injury and the team's dynamics, the 35-year-old Bryant enters the final year of his contract with high hopes.
"Another championship," Bryant said, grinning. "That's an easy one." ___