An exact timetable still doesn't exist, per Sam Amick of USA Today. Normally, that's troubling. In this case, it's merely puzzling.
The prevailing sentiments coming out of Lakerland suggest that Kobe is ahead of schedule—whatever that means. Opening night—Oct. 29 against the Los Angeles Clippers—has always been the goal, but a definitive date hasn't been set.
Los Angeles needs the sort of clarity only actual answers provide. And if the Lakers have them, neither they nor Kobe is sharing.
Knowing just how long the team will be without Kobe is critical to their success, or lack thereof. They need to know what it is they're dealing with and how long they'll be playing without him, if at all.
Their season depends on it.
The Opening-Night Fiesta
Though I stand by my prediction that Kobe will play on opening night—no one likes an indecisive Ida—the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan writes that it's unlikely:
Probably no Lakers opener for Kobe, who says he'll need at least 3 weeks of hard conditioning to get in shape. Hasn't started that yet.— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) October 9, 2013
Why? Because Kobe's too fat at the moment; Kobe's words, not his:
Kobe: "I've got to get my fat ass in shape. Six months of eating whatever the hell I want and not running...caught up to me a little bit."— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) October 9, 2013
But what if, against all donuts odds, he plays or even starts? Remember, this is Kobe we're talking about. Putting anything past him only reeks of ignorance, because that's what it is.
Coming off a campaign that saw the Lakers underachieve, Kobe clash with Dwight Howard and his Achilles betray him, don't discount his ability to surprise. For all we know, the Lakers could have installed a trapdoor at center court through which Kobe will rise just before tip-off, to the tune of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."
Were this to happen, the end results could be bittersweet. Seeing Kobe take the floor against the Clippers would be refreshing, but only if he's actually ready. What the Lakers don't want is for him to rush back only to re-injure himself later on.
Assuming he's actually healthy, however, Los Angeles receives a much-needed boost. Six of their first 10 games come against 2013 playoff teams, and they have that brutal three-game stretch to open the season, with contests against the Clippers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
Having that extra scorer, that extra leader increases the Lakers' chances of winning one or two of those games and starting the season off right. Kobe's ability to return so early would also suggest that things haven't changed. He'd still be Kobe, the volume-scoring, ring-wielding legend who takes pleasure out of doing the opposite of what the majority expects.
Projected Regular-Season Record: 47-35
Projected Western Conference Finish: 6-8
Kobe's Take: Playoffs baby! #MambaArmyStandUp #TakeThatDwight #GlazedDonutsForTheWin
The Mid-to-Late-November, Early-December Homecoming
Barring any complications, a semi-early return seems more likely than anything at the moment.
Returning sometime between mid-November and early December means Kobe would miss anywhere between 10 and 20 games. When you think about it, that's not the end of the world.
Exactly half of Los Angeles' opponents in their first 20 games on the schedule made the playoffs last year. In the interest of being realistic, though, just three of those games come against teams guaranteed to finish in the lottery—the Sacramento Kings (twice) and Phoenix Suns.
Impeding matters further is that Kobe's return will come just as other players and teams begin to get their regular-season legs under them. He may or may not be in training-camp or preseason mode while the rest of the Western Conference will be 10 or more games into the season.
Helping Los Angeles' case is the array of other fringe-playoff factions that will still have questions of their own. Teams like the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves all have plenty of new faces to incorporate or injuries to overcome.
Even if the Lakers were to flop and, say, win just five games and play sub-.500 basketball until Kobe's return, there's still plenty of time for them to turn it around. Hard to imagine that a relentless Kobe's presence won't inspire his teammates.
Projected Regular-Season Record: 44-38
Projected Western Conference Finish: 7-8
Kobe's Take: Playoffs maybe! #MambaArmyStandUp #SeeYouInTheFirstRoundCoachPop
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year
Time for depression to set in.
Delaying Kobe's return until Christmas or the New Year would all but kill Los Angeles' chances of sneaking into the postseason. He will have sat out at least 29 games, and the Lakers will have been forced to make Nick Young the focal point of their offense (outside of Pau Gasol) for almost half of the season. Ask the Washington Wizards how that worked out for them.
Should the Lakers manage to be at or around .500, then perhaps his insertion would spark a playoff run. But re-entering the fray doesn't figure to be an easy process for Kobe, no matter when he does it. After missing 30-plus games, he'll be forced to play catch-up for a significant period of time, at which point the Lakers will then fall out of postseason contention, if they haven't already.
The Western Conference has gotten better. Don't forget that. Even with Kobe in the lineup, the top six spots in the conference seem to be under wraps, courtesy of the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and Clippers. That leaves three spots to be divvied up between some combination of the Lakers, Timberwolves, Nuggets, Pelicans, Blazers and Mavericks.
Emerging as a tried-and-true postseason opponent with Kobe ready from the start will be difficult enough. Doing it after he misses 10 or more games will still be hard, but remains plausible. Making a run after he's missed 30 or more games borders on impossible.
Projected Regular-Season Record: 39-43
Projected Western Conference Finish: 9-10
Kobe's Take: Dang! #MambaArmyHoldStrong #TwoTripsToGermanyThisSummer
You know those movies your sensitive significant other loves so much? The romantic comedies where things take a turn for the worst and either Prince Charming or Shrek arrives in the nick of time to save the day? Yeah, those movies.
Well, if Kobe doesn't make his return until after the All-Star break, Los Angeles' season isn't going to play out like one of those talkies. Rather, the events that unfold will be tough to watch, like anything the Wayans brothers are in.
The Lakers will have played 53 games without Kobe if it gets this far. That's more than half the season, and the Mamba won't even have gotten his feet wet.
Maybe his kind-of-fresh legs will give him an edge over those who have 50-plus battles under their belts, but the Lakers will only have 29 games to turn it around. I shudder to think at how many minutes Steve Nash and Pau Gasol could be averaging at this point, as well.
With Kobe out for such a long time, Mike D'Antoni might be better off cutting Los Angeles' losses and taking the "maybe next year" approach. But he could be coaching for his job by this point too, decreasing the likelihood that he plays it conservative.
If a late-season comeback is the unfortunate twist this saga does indeed take, the Lakers won't be fighting for a division title. Or even a playoff spot. They'll be left to stave off (gulp) the Kings for third place in the Pacific Division instead.
Projected Regular-Season Record: 34-48
Projected Western Conference Finish: 11-12
Kobe's Take: Damn, ESPN was right! #MambaArmyStandUP #MambasNeverTank #12 #Oops
The Derrick Rose
This isn't going to happen. It can't. It won't. This is Kobe. Something terrible could happen—like he loses a limb—and he would still play.
But if it did? Deep doo-doo—that's what the Lakers would be in.
When will Kobe return to the Lakers?
The Chicago Bulls winning 45 games without Derrick Rose in a wide-open, not-so-talented Eastern Conference is one thing. Life out West isn't the same. The Lakers are on rocky ground as it is. Their three most important players are well past 30. Removing one of those players, especially the most important one, from the lineup for an entire season would have a disastrous effect.
Gasol and Nash aren't sporting clean bills of health themselves. Placing the fate of the season in their hands, when they have no one other than a handful of marginal role players to help shoulder the load, well, that's not going to end well.
Suddenly, the question becomes: Can the Lakers win 30 games?
Projected Regular-Season Record: 31-51
Projected Western Conference Finish: 11-13
Kobe's Take: Maybe next year! #MambaArmyDryYourEyes #WelcomeToTheTeamAndrewWiggins