In a season that seems to have as many subplots as the team has players, the Los Angeles Lakers don't appear to be suffering too much in their newfound and certainly unwanted role as NBA Western Conference wannabes.
At the close of a recent practice at Cleveland's Gund Arena for a game the next day against the fast-improving Cavaliers, the Lakers were loose and loud and apparently not lamenting a 22-point loss in Detroit two nights earlier.
Lamar Odom and Chucky Atkins were in the midst of a friendly half-court shooting contest, with Odom walking off with his arms raised in triumph as his final attempt swished cleanly through the net.
Kobe Bryant, on the verge of playing again after missing a month with a sprained ankle, worked on repairing his tattered image by talking freely with the media.
And Frank Hamblen, the team's coach since replacing Rudy Tomjanovich, joked about his dream job.
"Someday, maybe I'll have my own team and have a training camp," said Hamblen, a longtime assistant who took over when Tomjanovich resigned Feb. 2 after 43 games. "Maybe when I retire, I'll coach at an elementary school or something and have them play the whole season."
Forgive Hamblen's ramblings, but even by the standards of a franchise that has always had its share of high melodrama and high-maintenance superstars, this has been one wacky season.
"It was crazy last year, and it's been just as crazy this year," said second-year guard Luke Walton, one of only four holdovers from a team that reached the NBA Finals last season before being upset by the Detroit Pistons in five games. "But it's been a different kind of crazy."
It started last summer, when the always tenuous partnership of Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and coach Phil Jackson - one that had produced three straight championships beginning with the 1999-2000 season - finally disintegrated with O'Neal being traded, Jackson's contract not being renewed and Bryant signing a seven-year, $135 million deal.
Of course, this being Los Angeles, it didn't stop there.
It continued earlier this season, when Bryant suggested that Karl Malone made a pass at Bryant's wife, Vanessa, and Jackson took several verbal jabs at Bryant in the coach's personal literary account of last season's soap opera.
It didn't help that O'Neal shed more than the emotional baggage he carried in his last two years in Los Angeles and, with new running mate Dwyane Wade, had turned the Miami Heat into the best team in the East. Or that the Lakers became just another mediocre team playing at Staples Center.
"It's just a transitional franchise," said Odom, who came with Caron Butler and Brian Grant in the O'Neal trade. "I think we have the pieces here to win, you know. Even with Rudy [resigning] and Kobe going down, we're still right in the middle of things."
Actually, the Lakers are only in the middle of the Pacific Division, and at 26-24 going into tonight's home game against the Boston Celtics, are holding the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
Though Bryant's return should help the Lakers stay in the playoff picture, the team picture could change again if rumors of Odom being traded to the Sacramento Kings for former All-Star forward Peja Stojakovic and injured guard Bobby Jackson turn into reality by Thursday's trade deadline.
Trying to put a positive spin on the season, Bryant said he was impressed with the way his teammates played without him.
"With everything we've been through, we're such a young team that we had every excuse in the world just to tank it," said Bryant, who scored 40 points in a victory over Utah last week. "We've battled hard. I think it shows a lot about the team and our character."
There remains the uncertainty surrounding who will replace Hamblen, the avuncular vagabond who has spent the past 35 years in professional basketball as a scout and assistant coach, and came to the Lakers after being on Jackson's staff in Chicago for three seasons.
Things got so desperate that Jackson's name was even circulated, along with Pistons coach Larry Brown. Given that Jackson hasn't finished his book tour and Brown is with the reigning NBA champions, it's likely that Hamblen will be the caretaker for what could be the team's worst season in a decade.
"My contract," said Hamblen, who served in a similar role with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1991-92 after Del Harris was fired, "is basically game-to-game."
Hamblen has put some of the components of Jackson's famed triangle offense back in the game plan, calling it "overload." In Bryant's absence, players such as Odom, Butler and Atkins showed off their talents, but with the 26-year-old star back, the offense likely will become one-dimensional.
In other words, get the ball to Bryant and get out of the way.
The Lakers, at least from what they say publicly, don't seem to mind.
"Anytime you add a better player, you're not supposed to get worse," said Odom, who led the team in scoring six times, in rebounding seven times and in assists seven times during Bryant's absence. "Whatever adjustment we have to make, so be it. With Kobe coming back, I hope none of us slack off in terms of aggressiveness."
Said Hamblen: "I think these guys will adjust pretty easily more because they've gotten their own identities, some of them have stepped it up a little and they feel pretty good about themselves. I don't think we'll necessarily step back or anything, but hopefully they'll continue the way they've been playing."