Kobe Bryant's Return Scenarios Drastically Alter LA Lakers' Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 10, 2013

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 10: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers, wearing an NBA Green Week T-shirt, sits on the bench before playing against the Portland Trail Blazers on April 10, 2013 at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Kobe Bryant will return to the Los Angeles Lakers soon—we think.

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

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 9: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers gathers himself prior to the game against the New Orleans Hornets at Staples Center on April 9, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

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:

Why? Because Kobe's too fat at the moment; Kobe's words, not his:

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 Season Playlist: Katy Perry's  "Roar," Nelly's "Number 1" and Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal."

Kobe's Take: Playoffs baby! #MambaArmyStandUp #TakeThatDwight #GlazedDonutsForTheWin


The Mid-to-Late-November, Early-December Homecoming

Oct 8, 2013; Ontario, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Robert Sacre (left) and guard Kobe Bryant during the game against the Denver Nuggets at Citizens Business Bank Arena. The Lakers defeated the Nuggest 90-88. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sp
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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 Season Playlist: Destiny Child's "Say My Name," Mase's "Welcome Back" and Britney Spears' "Lucky."

Kobe's Take: Playoffs maybe! #MambaArmyStandUp #SeeYouInTheFirstRoundCoachPop


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 25:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks to make a play to the basket against J.R. Smith #8 of the New York Knicks in the second half during the NBA game at Staples Center on December 25, 2012 in Los Angeles, Califor
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

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.

Navigating the West with or without Kobe will be tough as it is.
Navigating the West with or without Kobe will be tough as it is.Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

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 Bryant's Season Playlist: Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle," Blink 182's "I Miss You" and Bowling 4 Soup's "Almost"

Kobe's Take: Dang! #MambaArmyHoldStrong #TwoTripsToGermanyThisSummer


Post-All-Star-Break Blues

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 12:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers appears to injure himself against the Golden State Warriors in the third quarter at Staples Center on April 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers defeated the Warriors 118-11
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

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 Season Playlist: Ke$ha's "We R Who We R," P.O.D.'s "Boom" and Jimmy Cliff's "Hakuna Matata."

Kobe's Take: Damn, ESPN was right! #MambaArmyStandUP #MambasNeverTank #12 #Oops


The Derrick Rose

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 28: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers greets teammate Pau Gasol #16 on the bench as their team plays against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Staples
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

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.

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

Swaggy P's Season Playlist: LMFAO's "Shots," Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and David Guetta's (featuring Usher) "Without You."

Kobe's Take: Maybe next year! #MambaArmyDryYourEyes #WelcomeToTheTeamAndrewWiggins



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