For a man who's often been looked at as this generation's President of the Los Angeles Lakers, it's only right that Kobe Bryant gave his latest State of the Union address less than a week before his team opens the 2013-14 season—without him, for the first time since Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men dominated the Billboard charts.
You've probably gotten used to folks inside Lakerland and out discussing Bryant and his potential return date as if it were a matter of national security.
Bryant didn't do much to help matters Wednesday. As noted by InsideSoCal's Mark Medina, the 2008 NBA MVP admitted he recently "scaled back" workouts to allow his recovering Achilles a chance to build up a chance to heal.
“Injuries to the lower extremities can always lead to something else,” Bryant said. “It’s not about waiting until I’m 100 percent necessarily. But it’s about making sure you’re running with the proper gate. We’re not putting stress on other areas that can cause problems down the road.”
While he's putting a good spin on things, the implication is clear: Those who were skeptical about a superhuman recovery were correct. Bryant still isn't cutting hard, he's still not practicing with a ball in his hand, and he's nowhere near ready for basketball activities.
The process—as anyone with a modicum of knowledge about Achilles injuries and their history has said—will take a while. But with every passing day, the murmurs and speculation will get louder.
For the Lakers, this is nothing new. After all, this is the same franchise that's had arguably the most success in league history and endured numerous off-the-court storylines ranging from Magic Johnson's HIV announcement to the blood-feud between Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. If there has been any franchise more equipped to handle the slow return of its superstar, I'm yet to see it.
Notice how I said the franchise. Not the players. Not the coaching staff. Not the front office. Because if there is anything that Bryant's injury will expose, it's the gaping hopes on this roster—something everyone (Bryant included) shares some blame for.
The schadenfreude is high within the league's 29 other franchises. Not at all because Bryant is injured—everyone around the league respects Kobe as a player, competitor and ambassador for the sport—but because the Lakers are entering a season where they are 10-1 to win their own division, per Bovada.
Everyone wearing purple and gold knows their backs are against the wall. They're being peered at, not through the rosy lenses of a year ago but through the harrowing gaze of concern, like a worried mother whose teenager is going to a "small party" at a friend's house.
The worry is there, it's totally fair, and it doesn't begin with Bryant. Not in the slightest.
Rather, the biggest question vexing the Lakers this season is whether they can avoid becoming one of the worst defensive teams in league history. It was an open secret even last season that this club was a defensive sieve when Dwight Howard left the floor.
The Lakers allowed 102.5 points per 100 possessions—about the equivalent of the Milwaukee Bucks' 12th-ranked defense—with Howard playing. It's rare, but you can win a championship with a defense fluttering in that range. When Howard was off the floor, however, Los Angeles fell apart. Opponents scored 108.4 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the bench, a level of putridity not even reached by the Charlotte Bobcats or Sacramento Kings.
Replacing Howard in the middle is Chris Kaman. This is not what one would call an equal swap. Last season, the Dallas Mavericks allowed about one point more per 100 possessions with Kaman on the floor than when he was off. And it's not like Dallas had Omer Asik waiting in the wings to back him up. Kaman's defensive presence is negligible, with his slow feet making him an easy target on pick-and-rolls, and he was dreadful last season in isolation, per Synergy.
If it's not Kaman replacing Howard in the starting lineup, Pau Gasol will reclaim his rightful center position for the first time in years. While going in that direction will likely be a boon on both sides of the ball, Gasol has chronic knee issues at this point. He's a far better, more intuitive defender than Kaman and uses his smarts to snuff out the pick-and-roll. Los Angeles will just be attempting to row upstream with a toilet-paper oar if Gasol goes down.
Any Gasol-at-center lineups also pose another interesting question: Who starts at the 4? Jordan Hill is ideal from a theoretical sense but not schematically. He's tough inside and can defend but isn't very good outside 10 feet and would cramp the spacing Mike D'Antoni so desperately desires.
Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding noted D'Antoni has been a ride-or-die coach for Shawne Williams to start at the 4, likely envisioning him as something of a broke man's Shawn Marion. It's worth noting here that Williams was out of the NBA last year and has shown nothing in his five previous years in the league to indicate he's worthy of even a paycheck. Wesley Johnson is another name who could get a look, again fitting the bill more in stature than in skill set.
Marion was unique because he was a chameleon as a defender. He had the lateral quickness to handle 3s, the versatility to handle 4s, and the toughness to even handle 5s on switches. Asking Johnson or Williams to play that role regularly is asking for disaster.
Keep in mind that Steve Nash, who was a turnstile before his leg injuries, plays point guard. And Swaggy P will be trying to handle 3s. And Jodie Meeks will take the place of Bryant. Well, actually, scratch that criticism. With the laissez-faire defensive effort Bryant gave last season—bad gambles on steals, choosing to yell at refs rather than get back in transition and bouts of ball-watching were nightly hallmarks—Meeks might be a defensive upgrade.
I'm more bullish on the offense than most. D'Antoni can coax league-average efficiency out of five brooms. Mitch Kupchak also squeezed some lemonade out of the Lakers' offseason by loading the roster with three-point gunners and enough decent scorers that I wouldn't be surprised if they broached the top 10 without Bryant.
And that's precisely the problem. Bryant's return will bolster the offense, certainly. What he did last season on that end of the floor was hands-down some of the best stuff I've ever seen from someone his age. But the Lakers performed very well offensively with Nash on the floor and Bryant off last season, according to NBA Wowy.
Delving deeper into the psychoanalysis of how Bryant will perform once he returns is overwrought at this point, so I'll pass. It's fair, however, to assert—based on his career arc and what the tape showed last season—that Bryant will be far more interested in reclaiming his offensive excellence than returning to All-Defensive form.
That's in no way a criticism. Bryant has an outside shot at taking down Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record—something far more memorable than how SportsVU said he did chasing Monta Ellis on a random Wednesday night. Whatever. I'd probably do the same thing. But Bryant's return won't suddenly be the bubble gum that helps clog the leaky dam.
The Lakers' path to relevance isn't a waiting game for his return. It's a waiting game to see whether the guys who will play in his stead can defend.
History says that banners will be about the only thing covered at the Staples Center this season.
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