Kobe Bryant, or more specifically, Kobe Bryant's Achilles tendon, will be the X-factor for the Los Angeles Lakers this season. If the Black Mamba can stay healthy and fresh enough for him to be a force, then the Lakers will have a fighting chance at being a force in the playoffs.
Still receiving treatment on his right knee, as Dave McMenamin of ESPN reports, Bryant's overall health is very much in question for a Lakers team that has lost its two best defenders in Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace.
Even if Bryant returns without as much athleticism or strength, there are things he can do that no other player on this roster can.
Scoring in the Clutch
Despite playing at age 34 last year, his age did little to diminish his will and his killer instincts throughout a game and during clutch time. These are intangibles that won't go away with age or fleeting athleticism.
Even if Bryant has to coast through an entire game or rest during back-to-backs, he can still be relied on to close out games for a team that lacks any other closer.
Consider the other stars on the team. Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are the other two players who could be considered reliable options down the stretch.
While Nash has exceptionally high shooting percentages for his career and has proven himself in the clutch, his fading athleticism and fragile body make him more of a spot-up shooter.
Although he did show flashes of the passing ability that made him a two-time MVP, Nash relied more on making the right passes and shooting open jumpers than really creating opportunities for his teammates.
This may be attributed to injuries and an inconsistent system. However, at this point in his career, Nash is even more of a health risk than Bryant.
Gasol is a good free-throw shooter and has a very versatile game. That should help him close out games down the stretch.
However, Gasol has done his best work playing alongside Bryant. His offensive impact in the clutch is not necessarily a direct result of the attention on the Black Mamba, but it certainly does help when the double- and triple-teams are being sent elsewhere.
All this means is that Gasol is unproven as the focal point in the clutch. Whether or not he can prove it is besides the point. The point is that Bryant will continue to be vital in closing out close games for the Lakers no matter how much his athleticism has been degraded.
Being left off the All-Defensive team last season was an anomaly in a career that includes a myriad of All-Defensive team selections.
While his waning athleticism and high mileage may prevent him from being the defensive stopper he has been throughout his career, Bryant is still the best perimeter defender on the roster.
Averaging close to six rebounds and 1.4 steals per game last season, Bryant continues to use his instincts and his positioning to clean the glass and guard the passing lanes.
Jodie Meeks and Jordan Farmar are no slouches on defense. However, outside of those two guards, the Lakers' perimeter defense is looking barren and weak after World Peace departed.
Bryant won't guard the opposing team's best player for the duration of a game if his offense is needed as well. While he won't be tasked with stopping the team's best scorer, he can still be a pest and guard them in stretches. The Lakers can also look for favorable matchups, such as allowing Bryant to guard smaller point guards.
The Black Mamba has proven his ability to shut down quicker and smaller guards using his size and length.
While it is quite surprising at this point in his career, there is no doubt that Bryant is the Lakers' defensive ace on the perimeter. They're going to need him to be effective on defense without tiring himself out.
Even if Bryant can't return in time for the opener, the Lakers are going to need his leadership in order to succeed this season.
Bryant possesses a very unique style of leadership. He leads by example and gets on his teammates using tough love.
His will and determination are unmatched, and he is best used as an example and a role model for his teammates rather than a conventional mentor.
A player can still be a leader with a faulty knee and a torn Achilles tendon. This intangible will be essential for the Lakers to overachieve with the roster they have this season.