It's going to be an interesting season for Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Coming off of a year that can only be described as wildly disappointing, Bryant enters the 2013-14 season on the mend from a nasty Achilles injury he suffered this past April.
Fortunately, reports regarding Bryant's rehab have been glowing, and it appears as if he has a legitimate shot to make a stunning return to the floor in less than eight months.
Although he's 35 years old and recovering from a serious ailment, we've learned not to doubt Kobe just because he's aging and experiencing pain.
As you read this slideshow, keep in mind that these predictions are largely based in optimism, but that's due to Bryant's track record of recent success.
If you believe Bleacher Report injury expert Will Carroll (and you absolutely should), then you're already of the opinion that Kobe Bryant will suit up when the Los Angeles Lakers take on the Los Angeles Clippers on October 29.
According to an interview with Timeout Dubai, Bryant sounded unsure but remained hopeful about hitting the floor on opening night: "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."
Considering Bryant's lengthy injury history and the perseverance he's shown time and again when dealing with painful ailments, nothing would come as a surprise from the 18-year vet.
At 34 years old in his 17th season, Kobe Bryant played an astounding 3,013 minutes, the sixth-highest mark of his career. Even more impressive is the fact that Bryant finished second to Luol Deng in nightly run with 38.6 minutes per game (Deng recorded 38.7).
It may feel like a stretch to say that Bryant will finish in the top five in minutes per game coming off of a serious Achilles injury, but if there's one player with the mental determination and physical wherewithal to achieve such a feat, it's Kobe.
If he does, in fact, return at 100 percent with the renewed energy and burst he showed last season, expect to see plenty of Kobe as the Los Angeles Lakers battle for a playoff spot.
There was considerable talk surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers' offensive deficiencies last season, and for good reason. An attack that boasted Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard had the potential to be one of the best the league had ever seen.
Alas, fingers were pointed at Mike D'Antoni for not tailoring his system to cater to the needs of Howard and Gasol, and all hope was lost.
Fortunately, it's a new day in L.A., and the Lakers have the benefit of learning from last season's mistakes.
And while you may have thought that the Lakers were an average offensive team last season based on all of the controversy, the numbers tell a different story. According to Basketball-Reference, the Lakers finished sixth in points per game (102.2) and ninth in offensive rating (107.8) last season.
Those are playoff-caliber numbers, and they're replicable despite Howard's departure.
Kobe Bryant set a new career-high last season with an effective field-goal percentage of 50.4, per Basketball-Reference.
For those of you who are unaware, this is how Basketball-Reference defines the statistic:
This statistic adjusts for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal. For example, suppose Player A goes 4 for 10 with 2 threes, while Player B goes 5 for 10 with 0 threes. Each player would have 10 points from field goals, and thus would have the same effective field goal percentage (50%).
With Bryant becoming more reliant on his jump shot (and three-point jump shot) with age, it makes sense that his effective field-goal percentage creeped up as his shot chart took on a slightly different shape last season.
This year, look for Bryant to sustain that success and top 50.5 percent in the effective field-goal percentage column.
Only twice in his career has Kobe Bryant shot better than 37 percent from three. The first time was in 1996-97, his rookie year, when he hit 37.5 percent of his threes. The most recent occurrence was in 2002-03, when Bryant shot 38.3 percent from three.
Based on recent figures, topping 37 percent for the third time in his career seems like a rather outlandish prediction. For context's sake, Kobe shot 32.4 percent from deep last season, 30.3 percent in 2011-12 and 32.3 percent in 2010-11.
However, based on Bryant's steady increase in three-point attempts the last three seasons (up from 4.3 to 5.2), there's a real opportunity for Bryant's efficiency from beyond to spike if he can harness his early-career form.
Seven times in his career, Kobe Bryant's usage has topped 32 percent. And that number could have been eight had his usage been just .1 percent higher last season.
With the Los Angeles Lakers dependent upon Bryant to facilitate and produce such a significant portion of their offense, there's no reason his usage can't receive a small bump this year.
After finishing third in the NBA last season in usage (31.9 percent) behind only Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, Bryant should crack the top three and surpass 32 percent for the eighth time in his career.
So long as Kobe Bryant is donning purple and gold, late-game heroics will continue to be a staple of his performances.
What's amazing is that Bryant's ability to come up with clutch shots in big spots hasn't taken a hit with age, evidenced by the three huge buckets he hit against the Toronto Raptors on March 8, 2013.
Conversations regarding whom you would want taking a last shot have to start with Bryant, whose resume is chock-full of timely buckets with the clock winding down.
How many game-winners Kobe will hit during the 2013-14 season is impossible to predict, but bank on there being two or more memorable moments from the Black Mamba.
Kobe Bryant's new role as a passer in the Los Angeles Lakers' offense was a pleasant development last season.
Adapting to an adjusted role in a new system, Bryant saw his assist numbers skyrocket in the first year under Mike D'Antoni. Kobe averaged six assists per game, which tied a career-high, and also recorded the best assist percentage of his career with a mark of 29.7, according to Basketball-Reference.
Now there are fewer mouths to feed on offense with Dwight Howard gone, but Bryant will still be able to work efficiently with Steve Nash and Pau Gasol while feeding shooters like Nick Young and Jodie Meeks on the wings.
Improved passing was one key to Bryant's efficiency last season (more on that shortly), and it will be again in 2013-14 as he seeks to boast a more well-rounded game.
Last season, Kobe Bryant finished with the ninth-best PER in the NBA, according to ESPN.
Tied with Tony Parker at a mark of 23.10, Bryant upped his efficiency by 1.1 from the year before, according to Basketball-Reference.
While those figures are more than respectable, a key number to keep an eye on this season will be 24. Bryant hasn't recorded a PER of 24 or more since 2008-09. Such a figure would have put him somewhere between Dwyane Wade and Tim Duncan, the sixth and seventh finishers in that category last season.
As Kobe continues to assert his presence atop the NBA's offensive hierarchy, look for his PER to creep up ever so slightly.
One of the few negative aspects that accompanied Kobe Bryant's phenomenal production in 2012-13 was the abundance of turnovers he committed.
On the season, Bryant turned the ball over 287 times, one shy of the career high he set in 2002-03. Kobe gave up the rock 3.7 times a night, a troublesome number for a team that had serious issues getting back and defending in transition.
Only once in Bryant's career has he turned the ball over more than four times a game, and that was in 2004-05 when he coughed it up on 4.1 occasions per contest.
With the Los Angeles Lakers offense becoming increasingly more reliant on Bryant to score and facilitate, look for the 35-year-old to set a new career high in the dubious category.
The key to the Los Angeles Lakers' playoff hopes will be the health of Kobe Bryant. Lose him for a significant chunk of the season, and they'll be in serious trouble.
Kobe's toughness and desire to play through various injuries is unmatched (seriously, check out his commentary about the immediate aftermath of the Achilles injury), and that will be on full display when he takes the floor this season.
Playing in 90 percent of the Lakers' regular-season games means Bryant would have to appear in 73.8 (we'll round up to 74) contests, meaning he'd be able to miss just eight all year long.
It may seem like a lofty goal coming off of such a gruesome injury, but it's an attainable one given Kobe's past.
Kobe Bryant's defensive capabilities have been lauded less and less as he's aged, but he still finished second on the Los Angeles Lakers last season in steals with 106. Only Metta World Peace, who now plays for the New York Knicks, had more with 122.
Steve Nash should be considered the front-runner if he plays more than the 50 games he appeared in last season, but Bryant has produced respectable steals totals in each of the last four seasons.
Bryant has been known to take it easy on the defensive end in order to conserve energy for explosive offensive performances, but look for him to threaten for the team lead in steals if he can play in more than 70 games this season.
Kobe Bryant may accrue his fair share of steals due to the Los Angeles Lakers' lack of depth on the perimeter, but that doesn't mean the team's defense will improve from last season.
The Lakers' biggest flaw a year ago was that they consistently flashed lackadaisical tendencies on defense, and that led to them surrendering 101 points per game (22nd in the NBA) and 106.6 points per 100 possessions (20th in the NBA), per Basketball-Reference.
In addition to Bryant's subpar defense making a return, the Lakers lost defensive staples Metta World Peace and Dwight Howard and added a complete liability in the form of Nick Young to fill the void at the 3 left by World Peace and Earl Clark.
Wesley Johnson and Chris Kaman will be counted upon to pick up some of the slack, but they aren't exactly the sort of trustworthy names Mike D'Antoni will feel comfortable leaning upon for defense.
At first glance, 2,000 may seem like a rather arbitrary number to select.
Kobe Bryant will aim to score 2,000 points in a single season for the ninth time in his career in 2013-14, and if he does (he scored 2,133 last season), he'll be sitting at 33,617 career points or thereabouts, which would have him firmly in third place behind Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time scoring list.
For the record, Bryant only needs 675 more points to pass Michael Jordan, which is looking like a given.
However, in order to tie Jordan's number of 2,000-point seasons, Bryant needs to total that massive figure three more times. That will be an insanely tough goal to achieve as he approaches 40 years old, but count on him doing it once more this year.
With Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony the odds-on favorites to capture the 2013-14 NBA scoring title, Kobe Bryant may actually be a dark horse.
But based on last season's production, should he be considered one?
Bryant finished 2012-13 third in nightly scoring with 27.3 points per game, and he finished second overall with 2,133 total points (Durant finished first with 2,280).
As always, the opportunities for Bryant to score will be there. The Los Angeles Lakers lack depth on the perimeter, which could place an even heavier burden on Bryant's shoulders during a strenuous campaign.
And with Dwight Howard gone, the Lakers will need to redistribute his 10.7 field-goal attempts per game.
The Los Angeles Lakers' 2013-14 season will be characterized by determination, tenacity and patience. If they're going to avenge last season's disappointments and qualify for the playoffs without drama, it's going to be up to Kobe Bryant and his supporting cast to lead by example.
A core trio of Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash is nothing to sneer at. Sure, they're old and lack pizzazz, but if they can hammer out lingering issues with their offensive chemistry, the Lakers should be in the hunt for a No. 7 or No. 8 seed come March and April.
Natural ebbs and flows of the season will cast doubt on the Lakers' ability to qualify for the postseason, but in the end you should count on Bryant and the Lakers to be in the thick of the chase with Portland, Dallas, Minnesota and New Orleans for one of the West's final playoff spots.
On the surface, another First-Team All-NBA nod for Kobe Bryant may not seem like all that big a deal.
But consider the severity of the injury he's returning from and the significance of one more appointment to the coveted team and you'll see that Kobe is being presented with an opportunity to make history.
According to NBA.com, after making First-Team All-NBA last season, Bryant now has 11 for his career, tying him for the most all-time with Karl Malone.
One more, and Kobe will have the top spot all to himself.
It won't be easy with Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Dwyane Wade all lurking, but Bryant has proved that age and the physical breakdowns that accompany it haven't been a deterrent to his individual success.
You may have noticed that this list was a fairly optimistic preview of Kobe Bryant's upcoming season. Sure, there are a number of significant factors working against him—namely health and age—but it would be foolish to bet against one of the fiercest competitors the NBA has ever seen.
Assuming Bryant returns and doesn't show any ill effects from his Achilles injury, you can bank on the 35-year-old flashing the form he showed so often last season, when he averaged 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting.
Few players compete with the determination that Bryant brings to the floor each and every night, so you can bank on the legend of the Black Mamba growing further when he returns and shocks prognosticators.