Over the course of the past five months, the NBA community hasn't been able to spend a single moment without hearing about the return of Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant. Seeing as Bryant is one of the greatest players in the history of professional basketball, that's not too surprising.
The question is, what are realistic expectations for Kobe once he returns for the 2013-14 season?
According to Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times, there isn't a timetable on when Kobe may return from surgery on his torn Achilles tendon. Many have speculated that he'd be ready for the season opener, but at this moment, nothing has been confirmed.
The only thing we do know is that Kobe left the country to undergo a procedure that is unrelated to his torn Achilles tendon.
For those concerned, this isn't expected to push back Bryant's return date.
Once Kobe does return, not too many people know what to expect. As great of a warrior as he may be, Kobe is 35 years old and coming off of one of the most severe injuries an athlete can sustain.
If there's one thing we know for certain, Bryant will see decreased playing time.
Reasonable Playing Time
During the 2012-13 NBA regular season, Bryant played in 78 games, plus the All-Star Game, and averaged 38.6 minutes per contest at the age of 34. Bryant played 39.2 minutes per game after the All-Star break and saw that number jump to 45.2 minutes during the month of April.
In 2013-14, expect Bryant, now 35, to get the Tim Duncan treatment and see more time resting on the bench in preparation for the postseason.
Bryant is entering his 18th season in the league, which makes him much older than the average NBA player—a scary thought considering many are lucky to play until 35. During the course of his career, he's played in 1,239 regular season games and 220 postseason outings.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Bryant is one of 29 players in NBA history to play in at least 1,200 regular season games. Per Basketball-Reference.com, Bryant is also one of seven players to play in at least 200 postseason games.
To put it bluntly, Bryant's body should've broken down by now.
Somehow, the ageless wonder keeps kicking and remains one of the game's truly elite players. Seeing as the Lakers didn't clinch a postseason berth until the final day of the 2012-13 season, it's somewhat understandable for head coach Mike D'Antoni to keep him on the floor for so long.
With a second unit that's deep along the perimeter, expect Bryant to see a drop to somewhere in between 30 and 35 minutes a night in 2013-14.
No player had as difficult a time adjusting to his role within the Lakers' new-look offense in 2012-13 than point guard Steve Nash. Nash may be one of the greatest facilitators in NBA history, but that didn't stop L.A. from using him as an off-ball shooter.
Nash posted a slash line of .497/.438/.922—a dream season for any three-point shooter—but he needs to have the ball in his hands. And so he will.
Nash averaged 10.7 assists as recently as 2011-12 and Bryant is coming off of an injury that impacts his explosiveness off of the bounce. Bryant will still be the create-his-own-shot superstar that we know him to be, but that doesn't mean the Canadian superstar won't take over as the primary ball-handler.
If Kobe is going to survive another full season, Nash needs to take over.
Nash, 39, was battling a lower leg injury throughout the duration of the regular season and thus saw his usage rate hit a steep decline. After posting a number of 21.0 in 2011-12, that figure dropped to 18.3 during his first year with the Lakers, per John Hollinger of ESPN (subscription required).
For a team with a large amount of uncertainty outside of Nash, Kobe and Pau Gasol, placing the ball in the hands of a veteran facilitator who makes everyone around him better is the ideal move.
With Nash serving as the assist-man, Kobe will be able to work off of screens and find openings in the same way as Ray Allen has during his aging years. Bryant isn't a three-point specialist, but he can hit open jumpers to develop a rhythm before taking over in the fourth quarter.
And that's where things stay the same.
Fourth Quarter Kobe
When it comes to the first three quarters of a game, it's reasonable to expect D'Antoni to be conservative with Bryant's playing time and overall usage. Gasol, Nash and Chris Kaman are strong enough to keep the Lakers in any game through three quarters, and Bryant would still be a pacing scorer.
Come the fourth quarter, it'll be the same old Kobe.
No matter what happens during the first three quarters of a game, Bryant is one of the greatest clutch players in NBA history. Whether he's hitting a wide array of logic-defying shots or drawing defenses to find the open man, Kobe is known and feared during late-game situations.
That won't change in 2013-14.
His statistics may take a slight hit, but that'll be a product of decreased playing time more than it is an inefficient approach. Until proven otherwise, Bryant is still elite and, until the day he retires, will be a player that defenses have to account for.
In the end, a steady pace will keep Kobe healthy and enable him to post strong numbers with less wear-and-tear.
Projected Season Averages: 33.0 MPG, 23.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.2 SPG