The Los Angeles Lakers are in for a battle for one of the final playoff berths in a deep Western Conference.
Even after Sunday night's head-scratching loss to the 23-45 Phoenix Suns, the Lakers hold a slim one game lead on the Utah Jazz. And while the Jazz (3-7 in their last 10 games) are doing everything in their power to remove themselves from playoff contention, the surging Dallas Mavericks (7-3 in their last 10) are choking out any breathing room for L.A.
With their playoff lives hanging in the balance, the Lakers need to find a player capable of producing the stabilizing performances that could prevent this season from taking any more disastrous turns.
For the Lakers, it's not about scouring the waiver wire or plucking someone from the D-League ranks. Rather it's about finding a consistent path to health for their one constant source of production all season, Kobe Bryant.
Save for a valiant, but scoreless, 12-minute first-quarter stint against the Indiana Pacers, the Lakers star has been sidelined since suffering a severe sprained ankle in the closing seconds of the team's 96-92 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Mar. 13.
Officially Bryant is listed as day-to-day (via ESPN.com), but Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni told Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com that the do-it-all guard will "probably" return to action against the Washington Wizards on Friday night.
If you feel a bit of festiveness in the smoggy L.A. air, it's because D'Antoni's remarks on his star player have left Laker fans counting down the days like little kids anxiously awaiting Christmas morning.
Bryant's return would be the ultimate present for a team that's spent most of the season giving charitable donations to its opponents. Be it the Lakers' 15.1 turnovers per game or 103.4 points allowed per 100 possessions (via NBA.com), L.A. hasn't done nearly as much to help its own playoff chances as it has to bolster the postseason hopes of its rivals.
The lone exception to that role, however, has been Bryant. When healthy, the 34-year-old has put forth an MVP-caliber season with 27.1 points (on 46.8 percent shooting from the field), 5.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game. His 23.2 player efficiency rating is more than four points higher than his closest teammate (Dwight Howard, 19.1) and ranks 11th overall in the NBA (via ESPN.com).
And prior to his injury, Bryant was playing some of his best basketball of the season. Not coincidentally, the elevation of his game coincided with the Lakers return to a playoff picture they figured to be the centerpiece of when the season started.
The Lakers held a 17-25 record on Jan. 23 and have since racked up better than a .700 winning percentage in the 27 games since (19-8). Bryant has moved away from his scoring a bit since (23.5 points per game, via NBA.com), but his LeBron James-esque 7.5 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game over that stretch capture his all-around effectiveness. And remember, those already impressive numbers are skewed a bit with his 12 hobbled minutes against the Pacers being included among them.
Bryant has won games with his passing during that time (the Lakers went 8-4 over that stretch when he dished out at least eight assists). But he also knew when his scoring was needed, as evidenced by his eight-game stretch, six of them Laker wins, of 35.9 points per game and blistering shooting percentages, 55.6 on field goals, 47.8 on threes, from Feb. 22 to Mar. 3 (via basketball-reference.com).
He's got the track record to keep hope shining through an otherwise gloomy Lakers' forecast. L.A. still has a four-game road trip left on its schedule and plays seven of its final 13 games against teams currently holding a playoff spot.
If the "Mamba" is healthy, the Lakers have potential to be one of the toughest outs in this playoffs.
But even if he's not 100 percent, he'll do everything he can to build the Lakers' postseason chances—along with his lasting legacy.