When Kobe Bryant's 2012-13 campaign came to an abrupt end after he suffered a torn Achilles on April 12, basketball fans couldn't escape the fear that it might have been their final Mamba sighting.
Clearly, those fears have been alleviated.
Via NTD.tv, Bryant said he's "shattered" the typical recovery timetable from this injury. And everyone's made a prediction of just how much of his rehab schedule he's shaved off.
Los Angeles Lakers vice president Jerry Buss told NBA TV, via ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi, that he "would bet a lot of money that this guy comes back probably in preseason." Bleacher Report's injury expert Will Carroll said the five-time champion will be ready for L.A.'s season opener.
More important than simply his return date, though, is how he'll look when he does.
So why not make like the Mamba here and shatter a normal analysis time frame by laying out seven way-too-early predictions for Bryant's first run of the 2013-14 season?
In all honesty, I'm tempted to say Bryant dons a permanent death stare throughout his debut.
He's always attacked the hardwood with a Rodney Dangerfield mindset; he plays like he gets no respect.
Never mind that MVP award in 2007-08, those Finals MVP nods in 2009 and 2010 or his 15 All-Star Game selections. He's spent the last 17 seasons balancing the Lakers on one shoulder and a massive chip on the other.
Well, Bryant has a reason to feel miffed this time around.
Analysts, like Sean Deveney of Sporting News, said he'll never be the same player after this injury. ESPN made a doomsday prediction for L.A., slotting the Lakers 12th in the Western Conference in its annual Summer Forecast.
None of this is slipping past Vino. He's out to prove all the doubters wrong, one bone-chilling death stare at a time.
Mike D'Antoni took plenty of grief during his first season as the Lakers coach.
He sapped Pau Gasol's production by moving him out to the perimeter. He wasn't Phil Jackson. And he gave Bryant a massive minutes dosage directly before the torn Achilles, trotting out the then-34-year old for 45.5 minutes a night over his final seven games.
D'Antoni shouldn't receive a full pardon, but that heavy playing time wasn't entirely his doing.
As Bryant told reporters after his exit meeting, via Larry Brown of LarryBrownSports.com, "Mike's really going to tell me when to go in and out of the game?"
Bryant's not a minute-restriction kind of guy. He'll push his body as far as he feels that it can go, just like he showed in that 12-minute appearance two days after suffering a severe ankle sprain last season.
Whenever he gets medical clearance, it won't come with any strings attached. Don't be shocked when his 2013-14 debut looks awfully similar to the 38.6 minutes he averaged last season.
As soon as Bryant's free to resume basketball activities, he'll start putting his flight plan together.
He may not be as frequent of a flier at this stage of his career, but the drop-off hasn't been as dramatic as you might think.
Last season, he attempted the highest percentage of his field goals at the rim (21.1) than he had since 2007-08 (24.2). His 69.3 percent conversion rate on those attempts was his career best on Basketball-Reference.com, which has shooting data back to the 2000-01 season.
It's been a long time since Bryant captured the slam dunk contest championship in 1997, but he's still offering some of the most sensational slams in the league. His thunderous throwdown on the Brooklyn Nets earned him the No. 8 spot on the NBA's top 10 dunks of 2012-13.
Hoops heads will be overly anxious to gauge his athleticism after this debilitating injury. Luckily, they won't have to wait long.
Bryant's been such a social media gift, it's hard to say whether he's more enjoyable on the court or on the computer.
The first ever recipient of the "Social Media MVP" handed out during NBA TV's inaugural social media awards show in June, he gives his fans everything they could want and more.
So far on Twitter, he's laughed at his supposed beef with then-teammate Dwight Howard, offered his assistance on personnel decisions and coaching moves and served Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban with a heaping plate of crow.
He will undoubtedly be vocal when he's back on the floor and could be even more visible in the moments before and after tipoff. Bryant could go any number of ways surrounding his return, but why not just call it what is: #MambaMagic?
Bryant's about as close to a real-life superhero as basketball fans have seen in recent history.
That's what makes it impossible to rule out these incredibly optimistic return dates, like Buss' preseason prediction or Carroll's claim of an appearance in the season opener. It's tough to say if either will be right, but it's harder still to believe Bryant isn't on the floor some time before December.
As long as Bryant's sidelined, that means Nick Young is likely thrust into D'Antoni's starting five.
L.A. faces an uphill climb to reclaim its postseason spot in a loaded Western Conference as it is. But a potential perimeter pairing of Young and either Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson or Xavier Henry in the opening group could derail the Lakers' playoff bid before Bryant even returns.
The Lakers have been postseason participants in 16 of Bryant's 17 seasons. He's not going to sit by and watch L.A. threaten to increase that number of empty campaigns.
Maybe he's not around for the preseason or L.A.'s opener against the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 1. But a Nov. 7 meeting with Dwight Howard's Houston Rockets or a Nov. 15 clash with the Memphis Grizzlies, which kicks off a four-game homestand, both feel like realistic possibilities for Bryant's 2013-14 debut.
With an injury-depleted supporting cast and 16 years of NBA wear and tear on his body, Bryant finished 2012-13 less than two points per game shy of his fifth scoring title.
A truly elite scorer, No. 4 among the league's all-time leaders, he'd surprise no one with a 40-point outing in his 2013-14 opener.
But he's a smart enough player to know that gaudy point totals might not be enough for this team. When he topped the 35-point mark last season, L.A. stumbled to a 5-10 record. And that team had Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison to help handle the scoring load.
This current patchwork roster needs Bryant to make the game easier for his teammates. He flashed his passing ability in 2012-13 by matching a career best with 6.0 assists per game, and he'll need more of the same for L.A. to maintain relevance.
Without knowing the time, place or opponent for Bryant's debut, it's hardly an exact science to predict his stat line. Still, I'll expect nothing less than 20 points and 10 dimes whenever that day comes.
Can you imagine Bryant crossing off each item on this checklist—death-staring the entire arena, logging major minutes, posterizing a defender, hyping the game through social media, returning roughly seven months from an Achilles tear and delivering a 20-10 performance—in a Lakers loss?
Neither can I.
A fierce competitor of the Michael Jordan mold, he can will his team to victory as well as any current NBA superstar.
Some nights that means tallying 40-plus points and double-digit assists like he did in back-to-back wins over the New Orleans Pelicans and Toronto Raptors in March. Other times it requires crashing the glass with an insatiable appetite, as each of his four 11-plus-rebound performances came in Laker victories last season.
And yes, sometimes that means ripping the nets to the tune of the second-greatest single-game point total in NBA history.
Bryant will do whatever it takes to keep his team in the win column. That's what he showed before he went down with this injury, and it's what he'll continue to display upon his return.