BACK-TO-BACK PLAN Unlike last year when they could draw inspiration from the sight of anything green or shamrocked, or the mere mention of their championship collapse, the Lakers don't have the sting of an NBA Finals loss against their hated rivals to drive them anymore.

Nonetheless, there are still signs that this year's Lakers are just as motivated to win a second straight title as last year's team was to capture its first.

They reported to training camp in better shape, Andrew Bynum strengthening his lower body, Derek Fisher improving his mobility and Lamar Odom sweating through grueling workouts in the boxing ring.

They played with more purpose during preseason practices, the coaches simply placing Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest on opposite teams whenever the intensity began to wane.

They even called a player's-only meeting after a lackluster effort in the second exhibition game, a sign that the slightest hint of complacency will not be tolerated for long.

"I believe we've actually had a more intense camp than last year," Bryant said on the eve of tonight's season opener against the Clippers. "Guys are just very purposeful. We know what we have to do. It's the kind of thing where it's on us whether we succeed or not, so we're going to respond to that challenge pretty easily."

If the Lakers' sense of purpose ever drifts this season, plenty of other formidable contenders are capable of taking advantage. The teams with the best chance to dethrone the Lakers each made themselves stronger with expensive moves that could pave the way for the strongest title race this decade.

Cleveland traded for Shaquille O'Neal, giving LeBron James a low-post scoring threat who demands attention from defenses. Boston added Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels, two veterans who provide scoring punch to the Celtics' meager bench and lighten the burden on their Big Three.

Then consider the improvements made by the Spurs and Magic, both of whom reshaped their rosters this summer. Orlando replaced Hedo Turkoglu with the more explosive Vince Carter and added promising young forward Brandon Bass, while in San Antonio, defenses can no longer hone in on the trio of Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker now that Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess have arrived.

"Other teams are better, but I think we're also a little further ahead of where we were at this time last year," forward Luke Walton said. "We have pretty much the whole team back, guys know the system better, and the intensity and hunger is definitely still there."

As Walton pointed out, the Lakers won't often be described as the less-talented team on the floor this season. Twelve players return from the Lakers team that ended the franchise's seven-year title drought by overwhelming opponents with the scoring and leadership of Bryant and the size, skill and quickness of a formidable frontcourt.

The only change the Lakers made this season was replacing Trevor Ariza with Artest, a bold move that sacrificed an emerging role player in favor of a veteran with greater credentials on offense and defense. Artest can create his own shot from the post or the perimeter and guard bigger wings that Ariza couldn't, such as Carmelo Anthony or Paul Pierce, freeing up Bryant to play the rover position that he has excelled at in the past.

"They add another defender, which will let Kobe roam," Denver coach George Karl said. "What got them over the top last year was their defense, and I think they showed (in the preseason) they're a better defensive team now than they were last year. I don't know if it's all Ron Artest, but I think that's a part of it."

Whereas so much of last year's success was motivated by team goals, the work ethic the Lakers have shown so far is also individual-based.

Bryant is seeking his fifth championship, one shy of the six Michael Jordan won in Chicago.

Artest is trying for his first, potential vindication for all the times critics said he was too volatile for a contender to risk acquiring him.

Bynum has a chance to make his first All-Star team and erase the memory of his mediocre playoff performance last year when he rushed back from a second knee injury.

And Fisher, Jordan Farmar and Adam Morrison are among the Lakers in the final year of their contracts and eager to showcase their abilities to would-be free-agent suitors.

"This year there's a lot of individual motivating factors that are pushing guys to be better than they were last year," Fisher said. "Guys either want to prove they deserve the new contracts they received or guys in contract years want to prove that they deserve another contract. I think it's that combination of individual goals that's breeding a real intensity in our practices on a daily basis."

If all else fails, the Lakers have also resorted to superstition to keep last year's championship Magic alive.

They still occupy the same lockers at Staples Center. They still chant "One, two, three, ring" after every practice. And they still sit in the same seats in the team bus on the way to the arena.

"To be able to dominate for a few years in a league that's so demanding and competitive, that's very motivating," Pau Gasol said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to keep that in our mind when things get difficult throughout the year."

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Added: October 29, 2009


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