During a recent interview with Time Out Dubai, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant opened up on his return from Achilles tendon surgery. In the course of the conversation, Bryant was inevitably asked about whether or not he would be able to play during Los Angeles' season-opener.
While many have responded to Bryant's unnerving uncertainty with signs of panic, his up-in-the-air status is actually a blessing in disguise for the Lakers.
The Lakers open the 2013-14 NBA regular season on Tuesday, Oct. 29 against the Los Angeles Clippers. Should Bryant manage to return for that game, his recovery from an Achilles tendon tear would last exactly 200 days—an absurd number for a 35-year-old who suffered a career-threatening injury.
Bryant told Time Out Dubai that he's ahead of schedule, and may do the unthinkable, but he currently doesn't know when he'll return.
I’m feeling pretty good—stronger than I was. I’m ahead of (my recovery) schedule. I don’t know (whether) that means I’ll start the season—I hope so.
Bryant has maintained that stance throughout the offseason.
Admittedly, there's no question that the Lakers would be contending for the No. 8 seed if they went through the season without Kobe. People can scoff at the lack of ability L.A. possesses, but they do have Steve Nash running point and Pau Gasol down low, and both men have reached the playoffs with less support than this.
Kobe's potential absence simply creates the opportunity for one of those two potential Hall of Fame players to receive the necessary reps to earn more touches.
Nash Gets the Ball
Even Kobe's most avid fans will admit that Bryant has a tendency to take control of a game with isolation basketball. No player suffered more from that approach in 2012-13 than point guard Steve Nash, who went from a 2012 All-Star to a 2013 off-ball role player.
With Kobe rehabbing and the Lakers needing a leader to take charge, that means Nash is in the driver's seat.
During the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA regular season, Nash posted averages of 12.5 points and 10.7 assists per game, also earning a Player Efficiency Rating of 20.29. He led the league in assists per 48 minutes and guided the Phoenix Suns to a record of 33-33.
The Suns were eliminated from playoff contention in their second-to-last game of the season. As for why that's so impressive, Phoenix's top two scorers were Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley.
If you really think that Nash doesn't have it in him to lead a significantly more talented Lakers team to postseason contention in 2013-14, you're just plain wrong.
During the 2012-13 season, Nash averaged 12.7 points and 6.7 assists with a PER of 16.00, sparking some to believe that he's over the hill. Despite playing on an injured leg throughout the season, however, Nash posted a slash line of .497/.438/.922.
The primary reason for Nash's statistical decline was the fact that his usage rate was 3.2 percentage points lower in 2012-13 than it was in 2011-12, per ESPN.
With Bryant sidelined, Nash will have the opportunity to take control of the Lakers' offense during practices and preseason games. In turn, Lakers players and coaches will become accustomed to running the offense through the two-time NBA MVP and allow him to facilitate.
It's then, and only then, that the Lakers can finally function properly and utilize each player's strengths to the fullest.
Learning How to Alleviate Pressure
As can be seen in the video provided above, Bryant stated that his goal is to play less minutes in 2013-14. It's hard to blame him after he averaged 38.6 minutes per game in 2012-13, which was the second-highest mark in the NBA behind Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls.
The difference is, Deng is 28 and Bryant is 35.
While we can spend the rest of the week complaining about this mind-boggling statistic, there really isn't much the Lakers could've done to change it. They were a below-.500 team for a majority of the season, and if not for Kobe's monster minutes, they likely would've missed the playoffs.
Keep in mind, it wasn't until the final day of the regular season that L.A. clinched postseason berth.
The issue for the Lakers was the fact that they lacked the necessary pieces to give Bryant any form of a rest. The should-have-been-elite pairing of Gasol and Dwight Howard never worked out, as coach Mike D'Antoni remained true to his anti-low-post ways.
Even if he wasn't, Howard doesn't have any form of an offensive game outside of the paint, which would've drawn double-teams on Gasol every time he attacked with his back-to-the-basket.
This wouldn't have been as much of an issue if Nash hadn't suffered a severe leg injury just two games into the regular season, forcing the team to use Bryant as the primary ball handler. With that being said, L.A. still deferred to Bryant to lead the team as a facilitating force once Nash returned.
It worked, but it also depleted the value of one of the NBA's greatest distributors.
With Bryant injured, the Lakers will now enter training camp without their leader and will thus need to create a new approach. Nash will handle the ball and facilitate, which means when Kobe returns, he will be able to work off of the ball.
Something he rarely did in 2012-13, with a usage rate of 30.0, per ESPN.
His status as an invincible force is gone—well, somewhat—and Bryant would be wise to play within the confines of the system. Nash can pace any team through three quarters, and Kobe would still take over in the fourth after using easy buckets to develop a rhythm.
When an organization builds a team filled with superstar veterans, sometimes it takes punch in the stomach to remind them that they are human. Now, the Lakers know and will be forced to play as a team if they want to experience success.
We all saw how the selfish approach worked out in 2012-13.