The last 12 months haven't gone as planned.
Last summer it seemed Carmaggedon would be the absolute worst thing to befall Angelinos in 2012—life was good. Dwight Howard flip-flopped his way into a Lakers uniform, Steve Nash decided Canada wasn't that great after all, "Call Me Maybe" owned the airwaves and someone finally made a movie about Abraham Lincoln killing vampires.
Waaait, last summer was horrible. Especially in retrospect.
Even the most ardent purveyors of Lakers doom didn't see the 2012-13 season coming, ominous pop-culture signs notwithstanding. This team seemed special, ready-made for epic headlines about Kobe's last hurrah and Howard picking up where Shaq left off. That's what this franchise does, what this city's accustomed to.
The ill-fated season went on to tell the tale of a different city, where the best of times were still pretty bad and the only thing to show for Los Angeles' winter of despair was a spring of false hopes. A breezy joyride down the PCH of Laker Life turned into a two-hour commute through the Valley (which is to say, completely unacceptable).
Then he took to Facebook with a decidedly different tune (via The New York Times' Mark Heisler):
There are far greater issues challenges in the world than a torn Achilles. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, find the silver lining and get to work with the same belief, same drive and same conviction as ever.
In the subsequent months, Lakers fans have been thinking about other things—like baseball.
And the future.
Kobe on return: "I'm shooting for November, December latest. That's my goal in my head...Once I'm ready to go, its gonna be on"— ESPNLA 710 Radio (@ESPNLA710) June 19, 2013
At least some corners of the Lakers organization seem to think that it won't take that long, at least if VP Jim Buss is to be taken seriously (via The Los Angeles Times' Ben Bolch):
"I would bet a lot of money on him coming back in the preseason," Buss told NBA TV during the broadcast of the Lakers' 72-68 summer league victory over the Milwaukee Bucks at the Thomas & Mack Center. "He's going to come back when he is right. I see him coming back at the beginning of this season."
General manager Mitch Kupchak didn't sound quite that optimistic, but nor did he rain on any parades. And until someone does, Lakers fans will continue to believe in Bryant. They need this.
Kobe and the Lakers might need it too.
The Lakers could make the playoffs with or without Bryant's early return, but there are at least two good reasons haste couldn't hurt.
First, if we learned anything from last season, it's that the Lakers still need to develop better chemistry on the floor. Between injuries and Mike Brown's early-season dismissal, there was never much of an opportunity for players to gel. The earlier Bryant hits the ground running—or hobbling—the easier it will be for everyone else to develop a rhythm.
Ordinarily, one guy might not impact what everyone else is doing quite so drastically, but there's nothing ordinary about Bryant's centrality to each and every play Los Angeles runs (or doesn't run). Those astronomically high usage rates aren't a figment of your metric imagination.
Everyone's job changes when Bryant's on the floor. It's especially important for new guys like Nick Young to learn the difference, but it's also important that holdovers like Nash continue discerning the nuances of life with Kobe.
Second, getting off to the right start may be important to maintaining a peaceful locker room. Mike D'Antoni didn't create much capital with fans last season, and his system deserves at least some of the blame for Dwight Howard's exodus. Should Los Angeles get off to a rocky start, D'Antoni would be subject to a crisis of confidence, perhaps even in his own locker room.
Hard as it is to imagine the organization reaching any conclusions five games into the season, it's happened before. Having Bryant around for those five games won't in and of itself determine playoff seeding, but it could determine the tone that starts 2013-14 off.
Risks of slippery-slope disasters can be overstated, but they're too often ignored altogether. In theory, last season's Lakers should have had more than enough depth to weather a storm here (Nash's durability) or there (Pau Gasol's foot). There should have been enough talent to overcome chaos in the coaching ranks and a glacially slow start to the season. Instead, everything that could have gone wrong did so with a vengeance.
Bryant's stabilizing influence on the lineup could avert another downward spiral this time around, and even if it doesn't, his legend would be safer than ever.
One More Chance to Set Kobe Apart
Whenever Bryant returns, Steve Nash is convinced he'll be as dangerous as ever (via the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus):
A doctor would tell you, at his age, it's not very realistic, but we're talking about Kobe. He's pretty driven, talented and he's a freak. I'm sure he'll be back better than ever and people will be marveling at the comeback he's made.
Doctors. Reality. Meh.
There aren't many players that elicit that kind of attitude, certainly not of Kobe's stature. If there were ever a guy who earned free passes and infinite patience from his fan base, it's Bryant—the one guy who doesn't need it. He doesn't owe us a speedy recovery, but is there a more fitting kickoff to Kobe's final act?
Maybe these monotone legacy discussions all focus on the wrong thing. Though a sixth title would do worlds for Kobe's likeness to Michael Jordan, it's Kobe's growing likeness to Iron Man that's more startling. Flu-games are great and all, but you know what else is pretty cool?
Shooting free throws with a torn Achilles.
Bryant is pathologically committed to doing things humans aren't usually allowed by science to do. Why would returning to health at the speed of light be any different?
And would anything short of that be a disappointment?
It shouldn't be—not to fair-minded observers. But that doesn't mean it won't be. That's the flip-side of forging a legacy by doing things no one else can. It becomes a new norm, an expectation—the kind of thing that gets Jim Buss talking about preseason returns of mythical proportions.
If Bryant never claims a sixth title by which to be remembered, this preseason return may be his last chance for heroics.
Not that he needs it.