A new age has dawned at Staples Center, its signs abundant in what is present, and what is absent.
There is the cover of the preseason media guide, on which Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers' 26-year-old star shooting guard, is paired with Lamar Odom, the latter looking like an afterthought, both somehow meant to suggest a team.
There are the names of the new players meant to complement Bryant -- a cast, for the most part, of yet-to-be's.
There are the ubiquitous Bryant jerseys in the Staples Center crowd, the Bryant photos throughout the hallways of the arena. In the locker room, a block of prime real estate now belongs to role players Chucky Atkins and Jumaine Jones. It was once the address -- until last season, in fact -- for the most dominant center in today's game.
Shaquille O'Neal, coach Phil Jackson and many of the role players responsible for Los Angeles' three straight championships from 2000 to '02? Gone.
This team belongs to Kobe Bryant.
That, of course, is the way Bryant wanted it when he reportedly helped oust Jackson, forced Los Angeles to trade O'Neal to the Miami Heat and signed a $136 million contract this past summer, making him a "Laker for life." The deal ended a Pacific summer soap opera that also included the dismissal of a felony sexual assault charge against Bryant.
But will Bryant, now the Lakers' primary offensive option, and Coach Rudy Tomjanovich be able to lead a team of predominantly young players back to the NBA Finals ? Or will Bryant collapse under the weight of this storied franchise, which finished last season atop the Pacific Division (56-26) and lost the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons? The question begins to get answered Tuesday, when the Lakers host Denver on opening night.
"He's kind of the only guy left from what people consider to be the championship teams," said Bryant's former teammate, Derek Fisher, now with the Golden State Warriors. "He has to be the one to have the responsibility and be accountable for what happens, for what happened in the past with the breakup of the team . . . and what happens to the team from here on out."
A team steeped in winning has entered something of a new era, and how it got here is nothing short of mind-boggling. How does a team whose success was built by embracing Jackson's mantra of team unity become so splintered by ego -- Bryant's, O'Neal's, Jackson's -- that it is reduced to starting over, building around the 6-foot-6 shooting guard who came straight to the league from high school?
Each successive title seemed to add an unheralded role player to the team's list of playoff heroes -- Brian Shaw in 2000, Fisher in 2001, Robert Horry in 2002. And yet, gradually, with each title the Lakers won, the question became whether the team belonged to Kobe or Shaq.
"Definitely, as a team . . . there was a depletion of doing the things that got us there in the first place," Fisher said. "One of those things was executing the offense and buying into the system that Phil and the staff brought . . . and I think over time, we grew collectively as a team less and less willing to keep it simple."
Last year, Los Angeles added perennial all-stars Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the roster, hoping that veteran leadership would keep squabbling between Bryant and O'Neal to a minimum. But nothing went as anticipated. Bryant was charged with sexual assault, his personal battle with O'Neal became public, and before the season had even begun, any semblance of a team appeared to be gone.
Despite the distractions, Los Angeles still managed to reach the NBA Finals but fell to Detroit in five games. Immediately afterward, O'Neal demanded a trade, and Jackson said he was stepping down.
To many fans, the loss of O'Neal was devastating.
"I've been a Lakers fan all my life," said Stevo Moore, 42, who works in downtown Los Angeles, "but when Shaq left, that was like losing a girlfriend. I'm still hot about that."
For his part, Bryant has resisted the notion that he played a role in O'Neal's and Jackson's departures.
"That upsets me. That angers me. That hurts me," Bryant said when he signed his new contract in July. "They did what they had to do. That had nothing to do with me. In a perfect world, we would have all come back and won another [title]."
But in his recently released book, "The Last Season," Jackson wrote that Bryant's inability to put the team before his own personal glory was instrumental in the Lakers' collapse.
"Kobe is missing out by not finding a way to become part of a system that involves giving to something larger than himself," he wrote. "He could have been the heir apparent to Michael Jordan and maybe won as many championships. He may still win a championship or two, but the boyish hero image has been replaced by that of a callous gun for hire."
Many, including Tomjanovich, feel that the best from Bryant -- who averaged 24 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists last season -- has yet to come.
"As a leader, his intensity, his work ethic, his desire to win is unparalleled," he said.
Through the summer and the preseason, Bryant has made a noticeable impact on Tomjanovich, who led the Houston Rockets to two NBA titles behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Surprisingly, the qualities Tomjanovich seems to appreciate are precisely those that were lacking from Bryant at the end of the Jackson's tenure.
"He called me in the summer, before guys started coming in," Tomjanovich said. " 'What kind of offense are you going to do? What are you thinking about defensively?' You know I've had a couple guys call me, but usually it's like there's problems. . . . This was just, 'Hey, I want to open the lines of communication,' which is fantastic."
Bryant also seems intent on communicating with the teammates who will be calling him captain: Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant, acquired in the trade with Miami for O'Neal; Atkins, Jones and Chris Mihm, acquired in a trade with Boston for Payton; Vlade Divac, who signed as a free agent; as well as leftovers Brian Cook, Devean George, Kareem Rush and Luke Walton.
They, in turn, are there to back him.
"He's our leader," said Rush, one of the longer-tenured Lakers with three years in purple and gold. "A lot of people are doubting him, too, as to whether or not he can carry a team. He's out here to [prove] people wrong. He's excited about it, and we're excited for him, and we're out here to support him any way we can."
There is, of course, the absence of O'Neal. Rush, like the few other Lakers who were with the team last season, misses the center and everything he brought to the team.
"[Shaq] did a lot of great things here," Rush said. "I saw him on TV with Miami, and it's like, 'Shaq's not here.' But a lot of guys are gone."
There is also speculation that Malone, who has been spotted courtside at the Lakers' preseason games, might return to the team. Tomjanovich would welcome that.
"I can't be a mind reader," he said. "I hope that the guy's thinking about being with us."
To Tomjanovich, the most impressive and surprising aspect of the preseason has been Bryant.
"I've had great players," the coach said. "Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler. I mean those guys are very professional guys. But there's something about Kobe that's just . . . it's on a different plane. Just his work ethic, his energy -- he's like a bionic man. The guy, he just keeps going and going."
By all accounts, Tomjanovich and Bryant are getting along well, particularly because the new Lakers coach has no problem designing the offense around his superstar. In fact, said Tomjanovich, he will make every effort to ensure that Bryant gets the ball -- especially when he's shooting well.
"I was an emotional player, and there's something that happens when somebody gets it going that you can't X and O," Tomjanovich explained, striking an unintentional but clear contrast with Jackson. "They've just got that feeling. You've got to get that ball to them in their areas. To me, that's what my job is as a coach. To make sure that when I see a guy feeling it like that, that ball's coming his way."
All of which leaves Bryant optimistic about the year to come -- a year in which he has everything to prove.
"We're coming around pretty well," he said. "Every game is an improvement for us because we have a chance to learn something new . . . We're just gearing up, man. Gearing up."