Good(ish) news for the Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant told Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com that he's "85 percent" sure he'll play in the team's 2012-13 season opener against the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night. He's been out of commission since the second of the Lakers' three preseason losses to the Sacramento Kings, during which he injured his foot while tripping over rookie Thomas Robinson.
Whether Kobe winds up siding with the 85 percent once he arrives at Staples Center or opts for the 15 percent (and accompanying street clothes), the Lakers' outlook in the early going remains largely the same—positive, with plenty of potential hiccups.
Historically speaking, the Lakers are 4-0 in season openers sans Kobe since he leapt into the league in 1996. That mark will more than likely move to 5-0 on Tuesday if Bryant can't go. The visiting Mavs were already in a spot of trouble after missing out on Deron Williams and Dwight Howard and retooling with stopgaps all over their roster this summer.
Even more so now that Dirk Nowitzki (knee surgery) and Chris Kaman (calf strain) will be sidelined from the get-go. Without those two, Dallas will slot Eddy Curry and Elton Brand into the starting lineup, which, as Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo! Sports noted, is a pairing more than a decade in the making:
11 years later, Bulls fans finally get to see if Jerry Krause was right about Elton Brand and Eddy Curry not fitting together.— Kelly Dwyer (@KDonhoops) October 29, 2012
The pair is also close to a half-decade too late to be at all effective against Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. Chances are, the Lakers would've had the requisite horses to overcome the Mavs without Kobe before and should be even more aplomb about their odds now that Big D's German giants won't be available.
But the favorability of LA's schedule, with or without Kobe, extends beyond just the opener. The Lakers are slated to play nine of their first 11 games at home. No fewer than six of those nine—vs. the Mavs, the Detroit Pistons, the Golden State Warriors, the Kings, the Phoenix Suns and the newly-James-Harden-ized Houston Rockets—would seem eminently winnable for the Lakers should they have "only" three of their Fab Four on hand.
Consider, too, that the Lakers tied for the third-best home record (26-7) in the league last season despite fielding a team far inferior to the star-studded squad that will take the floor in some form on Tuesday night.
And despite slogging their way through a lockout-shortened schedule while trying to learn a new system under a new coaching staff without the benefit of significant practice time.
As it happens, the Lakers find themselves in similar flux (if not more so) this time around. More than half of their current roster (eight out of 15) wasn't in LA last season—a figure that grows to nine out of 15 when including Jordan Hill, who joined the Lake Show at the trade deadline this past March. The same goes for the coaching staff, which features three new assistants—Bernie Bickerstaff, Steve Clifford and Eddie Jordan.
Jordan's role is of particular import. He's the one most responsible for teaching elements of the Princeton offense to a roster that, though talented at the top, is nearly as light on depth as it is on experience as a collective.
If the preseason results were any indication, Jordan and the players still have plenty of kinks to work out. The Lakers averaged a paltry 85.9 points along with a staggering 18.6 turnovers during their stumble to an 0-8 record in exhibitions.
But the Lakers will (and would) be a work-in-progress whether or not Kobe's on the floor.
Frankly, LA shouldn't rush Bryant back into action, nor should he fight against the best judgment of the team's training staff if it should come to that. As Kobe said of his relationship with long-time trainer Gary Vitti and company on Tuesday:
"I never get clearance. Either I'm ready to go or I'm not ready to go. But they've done a great job treating me and getting me ready. We've been together for so long that they trust my judgment."
Not that anyone should expect Bryant to jeopardize his own long-term fitness in the process. He's as anxious as anyone to feature in the Lakers' revamped lineup, but understands full well that the Lakers' goals are hardly contingent on the results of a few games in October and November:
"Of course, I want to play. We've put together a great roster here, and I've worked real hard this summer to get myself in tip-top shape and be ready to go.
"So I'm not going to play with an injury that's going to get progressively worse and just limp through the season. I've worked too hard for that."
Indeed, he's worked too hard to let his next (and perhaps last) best chance to win Championship No. 6 slip away because he's too eager and too "tough" to heed the warnings shooting up from his troublesome right foot. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has also worked too hard for that to happen, seeing as how he spent the summer turning Andrew Bynum and spare parts into Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
Not as flashy window dressing, but as crucial additions to a championship-caliber foundation.
If achieving those long-term goals (i.e. winning the Western Conference and coming out ahead in the NBA Finals) requires that the Lakers take a hit in the short term while Kobe nurses himself back to health, then so be it.
The regular season hasn't been something of consequence for the Lakers beyond qualification for the playoffs since, say, the 1999-2000 season, when Phil Jackson took over on the bench, Shaquille O'Neal showed up motivated and in shape, and the Purple and Gold rolled to 67 wins on the way to the first of three consecutive titles.
Any immediate expectations need be tempered for this Lakers squad, what with so many moving parts still seeking comfortable accommodations and the West loaded with quality competition.
Postseason success has been, is and will always be paramount to the Lakers, especially now that Kobe Bryant's Hall of Fame career is drawing to a close. Such success won't be possible without the Black Mamba fit to lead a team that's ostensibly his until either he relinquishes the reins willingly or has them wrested from his arthritic hands.
Really, then, Bryant's chances of playing on opening night don't and won't matter, so long as they don't negatively impact his ability to play when the games actually actually (ACTUALLY) mean something.
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