Kobe Bryant carried the Los Angeles Lakers all the way to the NBA finals last season, but fell short in his quest to win a fourth title.

The league's reigning MVP again has his sights set on a championship run, and the return of emerging star Andrew Bynum could make that journey easier.

The Portland Trail Blazers, meanwhile, also have a center they are counting on to one day help them to a championship, as former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden is set to make his NBA debut after sitting out all of last season.

Bryant and Bynum look to get off the Lakers off to a strong start to the season Tuesday night when they host the young and talented Blazers, who are seeking their first playoff appearance in six years.

Los Angeles finished a Western Conference-best 57-25 last season and advanced to the finals for the first time since 2004, losing to Boston in six games. The Celtics won by frustrating league MVP Bryant defensively and dominating under the basket.

Controlling the paint likely would have been harder for Boston to do had the 7-foot, 285-pound Bynum been healthy. Los Angeles is counting on him to take some of the defensive pressure off Bryant and give the 10-time All-Star better looks at the basket, while also strengthening the team's play down low in 2008-09.

"It was just about getting stronger over the summer, not necessarily about getting tougher," said Bryant, whose 28.3-point average ranked second in the league last season. "Boston was a stronger team. What we want to shore up is becoming a better defensive team."

Bynum was helping the Lakers do that last season before dislocating his left kneecap in January. He averaged 13.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks while shooting a league-best 63.6 percent from the field in 35 games before his injury.

"I feel fine, the knee is fine," said Bynum, who turned 21 years old Monday. "I'm definitely 100 percent."

With Bynum in the middle and 7-foot Pau Gasol at power forward, the Lakers' rebounding and shot blocking figure to improve.

Gasol was acquired from Memphis on Feb. 1 and averaged 16.9 points and 9.3 rebounds in 21 playoff games for the Lakers.

"We're in much better position now than we were (last season at this time)," said Bryant, who helped lead the United States to a victory over Gasol and Spain in the gold-medal game at the Beijing Olympics. "We're the favorites for a reason. We got all the tools here, now it's on us to do the work."

The Trail Blazers are not considered title contenders like the Lakers, but Portland is expected to make a run at the playoffs now that all its key parts are in place.

The Blazers, who haven't been to the playoffs since 2002-03, finished 10th in the West last season at 41-41. They posted a .500 record for the first time since 2003-04 despite playing without Oden, the top pick in the 2007 draft.

The 7-foot, 250-pound Oden missed the season after microfracture surgery on his right knee, but he appears ready to go after averaging 11.5 points and 7.8 rebounds in six preseason games.

"I'm excited,'' the 20-year-old center said. "I'm ready to get back and doing what I'm used to doing. There's really nothing else I can say about that. It's just a lot of excitement built up.''

In addition to Oden, the Blazers have a pair of emerging young stars in guard Brandon Roy and forward LaMarcus Aldridge.

The 24-year-old Roy averaged 19.1 points, 5.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds last season and made the All-Star team. Aldridge, 23, averaged 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds, boosting his scoring by 9.0 points per game from his rookie season of 2006-07 - the second-best such improvement in the league.

"For the past two seasons it's been like, 'They're young, they're going to need some time,''' said Roy, who averaged 21.5 points and 12.0 assists in the two games he played against Los Angeles last season - both wins. "It doesn't feel like that this season.''

The Lakers and Blazers split their four meetings in 2007-08, each team winning twice at home.

Los Angeles has won three straight home games over Portland and 12 of the last 14 meetings at Staples Center.

Bryant has averaged 37.1 points in 11 games against the Blazers since the start of the 2005-06 season - his highest scoring average against any West opponent in that span.

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