The closer we get to the start of the 2013-14 season, the more it seems like a realistic possibility that Kobe Bryant won't be able to suit up for the Los Angeles Lakers' season opener against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Ever since he ruptured his Achilles at the end of the last season, Kobe has been aggressively rehabbing, and there seems to be a tacit assumption that the Black Mamba is too inhuman to actually miss time.
But not so fast, as Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News makes abundantly clear:
Kobe Bryant continued rehabbing on his surgically repaired left Achilles tendon, the latest involving running at 75 percent of his body weight on a treadmill. Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti expects Bryant remains a “few weeks away” before advancing to full-weight bearing running, though he added “there’s no projected date” on whether Bryant could play in the Lakers’ season opener Oct. 29 against the Clippers.
It all fits the Lakers’ conservative approach in ensuring Bryant doesn’t return from an injury he suffered April 12 before it fully heals.
What if Kobe has to miss more time, though? What if he isn't going to watch from the sidelines for just the first game of the season?
That's a distinct possibility. L.A. has to treat its aging star player with caution. It doesn't make sense to rush back No. 24 for a season that doesn't appear so promising in the first place.
For the sake of the argument, let's say that Kobe ends up missing a full month.
Could the Lakers survive?
Lakers' Chances During That First Month
If Kobe really does miss the first month of the season—in the interest of specificity, let's pin his potential return on December 1, just to appease those with round-number bias—the Lakers are going to be starting out in a pretty sizable hole.
Before the Lake Show takes on the Portland Trail Blazers on the first day of the year's final month, it has to perform 17 times. And the schedule is absolutely brutal. Here's how it unfolds, from start to finish:
- October 29 vs. Los Angeles Clippers
- October 30 at Golden State Warriors
- November 1 vs. San Antonio Spurs
- November 3 vs. Atlanta Hawks
- November 5 at Dallas Mavericks
- November 7 at Houston Rockets
- November 8 at New Orleans Pelicans
- November 10 vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
- November 12 vs. New Orleans Pelicans
- November 13 at Denver Nuggets
- November 15 vs. Memphis Grizzlies
- November 17 vs. Detroit Pistons
- November 22 vs. Golden State Warriors
- November 24 vs. Sacramento Kings
- November 26 at Washington Wizards
- November 27 at Brooklyn Nets
- November 29 at Detroit Pistons
The games that you see in bold are contests against teams that I project to finish with playoff berths. Right off the bat, that's 11 of the 17 games. Given that the Lakers would have struggled to beat many of those squads even with a healthy Kobe in the lineup, let's be generous and say that they go 2-9 in the bolded contests.
As for the remaining six games, three are on the road. We'll give the Lakers a 3-3 mark in those six, meaning that they'd be starting the season off right around 5-12.
And again, that's being generous.
When a team would struggle to advance past 82 games even while fully healthy, that's too big a hole to dig out of. It took 45 wins to make the playoffs in the Western Conference last year, and reaching that mark would now involve the Lakers going 40-25 to close the season.
A 40-25 mark can be prorated to 51-31 over the course of a full year.
Does anyone think the Lakers are a 50-win team this year, even when at full strength? It's a record that might even give Metta World Peace pause.
It's tough to call a season doomed after just one month, but that's exactly what would happen if Kobe missed the first 17 games.
But how would his absence then affect the team for the rest of the year and beyond?
That's the bigger question, after all.
Impact on the Rest of the Season
If the Lakers are out of playoff contention by the time Kobe returns, that means the rest of the season becomes...interesting.
Could the Lakers, one of the NBA's most historically proud franchises, actually consider tanking? Just to refresh your memory, here's an excerpt of an article written by Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times:
Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak doesn't see the virtue in tanking the season for a lottery pick.
"The ping-pong lottery thing, even if you have the very worst team in the NBA, you're not guaranteed to get the first pick," Kupchak said Thursday to Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio. "I'm not sure getting into the lottery and ending up with 10, 11, 12, 13 or 14 is going to give us a top one or two pick in the draft."
"We still may end up drafting 12, 13 or 14, which is not a great place to draft if you just look back on drafts in this league," he continued.
The Lakers are too proud to tank. Kobe Bryant is way too proud to tank.
Actually, I'd love to be a fly on the wall if Mike D'Antoni told his players that they needed to start losing games while the Mamba was within earshot. I can't decide if the shooting guard would go into a fit of rage and single-handedly destroy the locker room or if he'd just greet the announcement with uproarious laughter and immediately fire the head coach on the basis of ill-advised joking.
But there are other ways to be bad.
The Lakers could end up trading away some of their crucial pieces, especially because they'd be quite tempting to teams in contention. Who wouldn't want to make a deal for Pau Gasol or Steve Nash in an attempt to shore up the squad for a run at the title? All the Lakers would need would be a first-round pick or something of similar value, especially since the two aging stars are hitting free agency soon.
Gasol's contract expires at the end of the year, and multiple outlets have speculated that the Lake Show could use the stretch provision on Nash's contrast to decrease the financial burden while allowing him to hit waivers.
If Kobe misses the first month of the season, these moves become realistic possibilities. Not only would they give L.A. more assets for the future, but they'd allow the team to tank without really tanking. The Lakers would just be completely unable to win games even if they wanted to.
Does It Change Anything for the 2014 Offseason?
Believe it or not, a delayed return from Kobe might even have an impact on the 2014 offseason. Let's have USA Today's Sam Amick take it away:
If he's a few more steps slow and not worthy of consideration as a starring member of another superteam, then it would stand to reason that — assuming Bryant re-signs with the Lakers as expected — the notion of LeBron James opting out of his Miami Heat deal and joining him in Los Angeles seems far-fetched. So Kobe's play, you could say, should be monitored closely by Heat fans as they decide whether or not to be concerned about James leaving town next summer.
Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks' star who would seem to be a prime candidate to join Bryant if he was looking for a new challenge outside of New York, already downplayed the idea that he might exercise his early termination option and skip town when he told Bloomberg recently, "I'm not going anywhere." If Kobe finally shows signs of slowing down as the 2013-14 season comes to a close, the already-slim odds of Anthony changing his mind would be even less.
It's a valid concern because everything the Lakers have been doing lately is done with the 2014 offseason firmly in mind.
Right now, only Robert Sacre and Steve Nash have guaranteed contracts for the 2014-15 season. And Nash could either be traded in this scenario (as discussed above) or waived so that the Purple and Gold can use the stretch provision to gain even more financial flexibility.
But Kobe is still at the center of everything for two reasons.
First, the Lakers have to decide how much money they want to give him in free agency. Do they really want to grant him another max contract and kill the cap space in one fell swoop? Can they convince him to take a major pay cut in the interest of luring more talent into Tinseltown?
It's almost guaranteed that No. 24 re-signs with the Lakers. He simply can't play for any other franchise at this stage of his career, so we can forget about the issue of whether or not they should sign him and jump straight into the question of how much he makes.
But the second question is the one that Amick dealt with.
What happens if it's apparent that Kobe is no longer the same player he once was?
As much as Lakers fans are reluctant to admit it, there's a chance that the Mamba can't regain that near-MVP level of play we've come to know and either love or hate. If there's even a slight hint of a decline, the Lakers lose a significant amount of appeal as a destination for marquee free agents.
L.A. will always lure in the big fish, but there's not as much reason to put on purple and gold if the team is going to struggle. Kobe has to play like he can still be a member of a true Big Three, or else the team loses a lot of marketability during the offseason.
I'd say something like, "No pressure, Kobe." But nothing could be further from the truth.
This year, the pressure isn't on the 2-guard to carry his team to a title. Instead, that weight on his shoulders deals with proving that he can still do that in the future, especially if his start to the season is delayed, thus forcing him to dig the Lakers out of a massive hole.
We're all waiting with bated breath for the Mamba to slither back onto the court, but don't take your eyes off him when returns. That part of his season will be even more important to the long-term success of the Lakers.