As NBA camps open, Lakers coach has serious doubts about his team. Phil Jackson sat sipping his favorite soft drink, the Arnold Palmer mixture of lemonade and iced tea. Jackson’s cane, the one he uses as he recuperates from a second hip-replacement surgery, lay an easy putt away. Behind Jackson, the sun began to set into the glittering Pacific Ocean. The symbolism was obvious, even to me.

Is the sun about to set, not only on the brilliant coaching career of the newest NBA Hall of Fame coach but also on the glorious success enjoyed by the Los Angeles Lakers?

“We’re at a critical point,” conceded Jackson. “Players [once] jumped to get the opportunity to play with the Lakers. It meant an opportunity to maybe win a championship. Now we have to compete real hard for free agents.

“This is a team that is probably the No. 1 [road] fan attraction. It’s got a mystique about it. We are definitely covetous of that past. We know Kobe Bryant is one of the reasons why we are the team that draws like that. We need to add to that, by our play or the bettering of talent.”

NBA training camps open Monday for the 2007-08 regular season, which starts Oct. 30. There are many interesting story lines beyond the intrigue inside the Staples Center, like the San Antonio Spurs’ quest for their first championship repeat and the rebirth of the Boston Celtics with All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joining Paul Pierce. There’s the Western Conference challenges posed by the Phoenix Suns with Grant Hill, and the Dallas Mavericks along with the revitalized Houston Rockets, now with international star Luis Scola and new coach Rick Adelman.

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