Tinseltown drowned in a well of chemistry sorrows last season, never broaching the level of dominance they were predetermined to meet. They fell well short of expectations and came out the other end of 2012-13 a bruised, beaten and Kobe-less bunch.
Remove Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace from an already rocky infrastructure that's without Kobe, and the Lakers could be worse off. Or maybe they'll be better.
The "Black Mamba" would be able to play, according to Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding, if the Lakers were currently in the playoffs. To know that he could suit up if needed is a relief. It's a blessing. But so his absence.
Battling life without Kobe has forced the Lakers to adjust; it has forced Kobe himself to adjust. All the while, the Lakers, Mamba included, are learning some much-needed lessons about themselves and how to avoid a repeat of last season's emotional catastrophe.
Learning the Ropes of Life Without Kobe
Playing without one of the greatest players in league history isn't supposed to be a good thing. Subtracting 27-plus points and six assists from the box score can even seem like suicide. But the Lakers need this time.
Kobe isn't always going to be around to define the Lakers. To be perfectly honest, most of these other guys won't be either. This isn't the roster of the future general manager Mitch Kupchak assembled. What the Lakers have is a stopgap, something to hold them over until 2014. Nothing more.
Still, this team, the one Los Angeles calls its own for now, can't be overly dependent on Kobe either. He's 35 and working his way back from a career-threatening injury. Shattered timetables don't amount to paralyzing or instantaneous success. When he comes back, the team will need to understand how to play with him in a diminished capacity.
Experiencing life without him is a great way to prepare for life with a limited version of him.
The days of him playing 35 or more minutes a game are over—at least for this season, but most likely forever. Hoping that he returns to form is one thing; expecting him to shoulder the same workload is another.
Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Nick Young, Chris Kaman—everyone. They all need to familiarize themselves with alternative game plans. Even the new guys, Young and Kaman included, must understand what it means to be without that security blanket.
Coming in, it's assumed that Kobe will do this or that because he's, well, Kobe. Remove that safety net and the certainty Kobe usually provides, and it instills a sense of urgency into others, reinforcing the notion that Los Angeles is no longer a one-man show.
Camaraderie Comes Easier
Spades are spades and Kobe is Kobe. When he's on the floor—in games, scrimmages, practice—he is the focal point of everything. The offense is run through him and everyone else must fall in line. And that can be a problem.
Complementing Kobe never suited Howard. A lack of chemistry down the depth chart doomed the Lakers to mediocrity last season as well. Not all of it can be blamed on Kobe, but we must understand how he, a polarizing figure, can get in the way.
Constantly running plays through him obstructs the ability of others to find their niche, to understand their other teammates. While this comes back to the one-man-show argument, it's something more.
Since entering the NBA, Kobe has the third-highest usage rate of anyone (31.8), behind only Michael Jordan (32.7) and Dwyane Wade (32.1). Never in a million years or at the bottom of a million vodka bottles would I call those guys chemistry killers. But there's a little thing called "dependency" that can be counterproductive.
Take the Denver Nuggets, who after dealing Carmelo Anthony didn't miss a beat. They've yet to miss the playoffs since his departure and have set an intriguing success-by-committee precedent. One could even argue the Indiana Pacers followed a similarly balanced route to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013.
That doesn't mean Kobe is a soul-sucking, loss-promoting parasite. He's spearheaded five championship campaigns playing his way. Entering the twilight of his career, however, an equilibrium needs to be established. Much like the Miami Heat are no longer defined by Wade, the Lakers cannot allow Kobe to completely shape their narrative.
Without him, the Lakers have been free to experiment more offensively. Gasol is a clear focal point when he's on the floor, but there's no go-to scorer because there's no Kobe. The ball is going to move more crisply, more frequently. Others are going to feel more involved.
Complementary pieces are being asked to find their own identity, a task that becomes much easier when you don't have to pander to another one.
"We have a lot of offensive weapons," Gasol told China Daily USA's Sun Xiaochen. "As long as everybody is healthy, we can have many guys make up for Kobe's absence."
And discovering how to make up for Kobe's absence puts the Lakers in a better position once he returns.
More than anything, Kobe wants to win.
More importantly, he's willing to do whatever it takes to win. It doesn't take an overpaid psychologist an hour and a comfortable couch to figure that out.
For all of Los Angeles' transgressions last season, Kobe's willingness to change wasn't one of them. Midway through the season, he became more of a facilitator than a scorer.
After the All-Star game, @kobebryant said he needs to be both a facilitator & a scorer for LAL, but passing “takes precedence.”— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) February 18, 2013
His six assists per contest tied a career high; the 29.7 percent of baskets he assisted on while in the game was a career high. And the 40 occasions in which he dished out at least a half-dozen dimes—you guessed it, another career high.
Point being, Kobe isn't opposed to assimilating. The team needed him to distribute last season, so he did. Whatever the Lakers need from him, he'll give it to them.
Watching from the sidelines only quickens that process. When he finally returns, Kobe's goal won't be to disrupt the chemistry that's been established. He'll want to further it.
Quite simply, he's the easiest integration to make because he can do so many things. He can play a point guard/forward role, he can resume his post as an habitual chucker, he can play off the ball or on it, and he can live in the post or on the perimeter. He can almost do it all.
Upon his return, that makes him a commodity for a Lakers team that will know exactly which version of Kobe they need to win.
Knowledge Is Power
Discovering an identity is invaluable. It sets ceilings and allows teams to plan. In the Lakers' case, it permits them to treat Kobe's return properly.
Sooner rather than later, the Lakers are going to know if there's something to play for this season. The longer they go without Kobe, the more they'll understand how to handle his arrival.
Upon Kobe's return, will the Lakers' chemistry be better or worse compared to 2012-13?
If the Lakers are woefully bad out of the gate, with or without Kobe, then perhaps they take it slow. Maybe they rest him more than they should (sometimes against his will). If they find out they have a Western Conference contender, then Mike D'Antoni can justify being a bit cavalier with Kobe's minutes. Or, if they're still without him, the Lakers can approach his return with a sense of urgency, sans the risk of looking like dunderheads.
Who the Lakers are matters. Ultimately, it will mold the outcome of their season and help them understand how to use Kobe in a way that gives them the best possible chance to reach their ceiling while ensuring he's around for the long(er) haul.
"After I get out there today and run around a little bit, I might have a better idea," Kobe said of how his recovery was going, per the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan.
By then, the Lakers themselves will have a better idea of what they have and whether Kobe's enough to push them any further.