LOS ANGELES (NBA/Olympics) - The Los Angeles Lakers went through some pretty radical changes ahead of the 2011-2012 NBA season, but one very important constant has remained intact: Kobe Bryant is still the face of the storied franchise.
The 33-year-old, now in his 16th season, is chasing a sixth championship and is also a very likely candidate for the USA to go after a second gold medal at this summer's Olympic Games.
Before London beckons, Bryant will look to lead the Lakers to their 17th championship and match the Boston Celtics for most NBA titles.
That will be no mean feat for a team that has had a busy off-season to say the least.
It began with the retirement of legendary head coach Phil Jackson, who was summarily replaced by Mike Brown.
In December, after the NBA lockout ended, LA changed up its roster, most notably trading Lamar Odom - last season's Sixth Man of the Year and a member of the USA's 20-man preliminary squad ahead of this summer's London Olympics - to the reigning champions Dallas Mavericks.
A three-team blockbuster deal that would have seen Pau Gasol leave California in return for Team USA point guard Chris Paul was revoked by the NBA, but the Spaniard's name is still mentioned in trade rumours on a daily basis.
As for Bryant, he gave Lakers fans a huge fright when injuring his right wrist in pre-season and a spell on the injured list looked inevitable.
However, one of the league's toughest players decided a torn ligament was not going to mess his campaign and he has played through the pain.
With so much change taking place within the franchise and so little time to prepare for a compact season, Bryant and the Lakers have been inconsistent at times.
FIBA.com caught up with Bryant to talk about the current season and look ahead to this summer's Games.
FIBA: Kobe, where do you feel the Lakers are at this moment in time? Are you encouraged by your recent play?
Bryant: We just don't have a big margin for error. It's really not that bad. We play very well for long stretches of the ball games but then we have a couple of minutes where we don't execute well defensively and teams tend to bust us open in those stretches. It's not as bad as the record may indicate. There's a lot of positives here and we're close to really turning the corner and we really have to keep at it.
FIBA: The Lakers are among the oldest teams in the league. Is that playing against you in this compact season?
Bryant: We're not necessarily young and we've been around the block twice. In this particular season it may take a little longer for us to get going.
FIBA: You're in your 16th NBA season and have accomplished everything. What keeps you motivated?
Bryant: (Winning a) sixth ring. I'm obsessed...I got to get it, it's what I play for. I can think of nothing else. As a kid growing up, that's all I saw. I watched Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan winning multiple titles. You grow up thinking that's how it should be. This is what I must do. Then after you win one, you become addicted to it, you win two and three. You get greedy. I want another one.
FIBA: Speaking of wanting more, can we expect to see you in London at the Olympics going for a second gold medal?
Bryant: I'm definitely going to play. I'm looking forward to it, if anything else just not to let Pau (Gasol) win a gold medal (laughs). I'm not letting Pau get a free run at getting a gold medal.
FIBA: One USA player who likely won't be in London is Chauncey Billups because of the injury he suffered recently.
Bryant: Hopefully he'll still be there. I'd be surprised if he wasn't there in some capacity, helping out some of the younger guards. He did a great job helping Chris Paul a lot at the beginning of his career. I know Chris views Chauncey as almost a big brother. Chauncey did a great job showing Chris the tempo and pace of the game and things like that.
FIBA: What are your thoughts on the USA's preliminary squad?
Bryant: We have so many great players, it's a good problem to have. The challenge has always been to put a good mix of players that play well together. It's not necessarily getting the best players but it's finding the players that fit together the best.
FIBA: But if you, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony all play, the USA will have no shortage of star power. That can be intimidating for any of your opponents.
Bryant: It's not about star power. It's really not. It's about putting a group together that plays well together. Spain play extremely well together, Argentina play extremely well together and so forth and so on. That's going to be our challenge.