Will Kobe Bryant's Early Absence Be the Death Blow to Lakers' Season?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 27, 2013

Kobe Bryant can't win games for the Los Angeles Lakers from the bench.

Most NBA teams won't rely on a 35-year-old shooting guard to define their season. Business models of that kind are typically discouraged. Younger is better.

Youth isn't an asset the Lakers are currently wielding, though. Their season arc is tied to the fate of one aging player, and one aging player only—Kobe Bryant. 

Unfortunately for them, Kobe isn't just aging; he's injured. And he's not going to be ready for action when the Lakers face the Los Angeles Clippers on opening night.

"No," D'Antoni said when asked about the possibility of Kobe playing in the regular-season opener, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "My God, I know he's Superman, but my God. He hasn't run yet."

Those questions will follow D'Antoni and the Lakers well beyond their game against the Clippers. Not until there is a definitive timetable for Kobe's return will they stop.

Certainty is something the Lakers don't have or haven't been very forthcoming with. Aside from a few simulated social-media progress reports, information has been scarce. 

"Vino" is shattering the presumed timetable, but what's the new one? How much longer will he be out?

The Lakers need to know, as it's him they need if they still wish to make the playoffs.


Searching for a Star

Before you start to argue that the Lakers can survive without Kobe, bite your tongue. Bite it hard. Then, don't say a word. Because they can't.

General manager Mitch Kupchak made something average out of nothing when he brought in fillers like Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Chris Kaman and, though I can't believe I'm saying this, Xavier Henry. What he didn't do is make Kobe any less important.

Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are two seasoned veterans who have borne heavier albatrosses in the past. But they're also old. And barely healthy. Nash, especially.

"He hasn't been able to compete in practice," Pau Gasol admitted of Nash, via Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding.

As if the Lakers weren't dealing with enough. Nash is approaching 40, and he missed a career-high 32 games last season. His ankles continue to bother him, and he's already entertaining the idea of missing the tail end of back-to-backs as well, per Lakers Nation's Serena Winters:

You can't count on him if you're the Lakers. And because you can't count on him, you'll be placing an emphasis on Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar. "Magic Mike" knows his way around a point guard, but neither Blake nor Farmar are starting-caliber floor generals on a playoff team.

Endless amounts of optimism cannot be attached to Gasol, either. He appeared in a career-low 49 games last season and, at 33, isn't in a position, nor does he play a position, where his body will suddenly be cured.

Tell the Lakers to plow on without Kobe for 10 games, and maybe they can do it. Maybe. Any longer—15, 20, 25, 30 or more—and they'll be in uh-oh, SpaghettiOs territory, minus the circular-shaped and sauced pasta.


Immediate Outlook

For reasons other than Kobe's continued absence, the start of the regular season won't be kind to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Through their first 10 games of the season, the Lakers play the Clippers, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans (twice), Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets. Seven of those teams made the playoffs last season, and eight of them had a record of .500 or better.

While the Lakers combined to go 18-14 against the aforementioned nine teams in 2012-13, they're not in the clear. That was with Kobe. He was present and accounted for in all 32 of those contests. Remove him from the lineup, and the Lakers aren't half as dangerous. Remove Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace, too, and they're barely a blip on the radar.

Teams like the Clippers, Warriors, Rockets, Pelicans and Timberwolves also improved a great deal over the offseason. Make a case for the Nuggets and Mavericks as worse off if you like, it doesn't change the fact that the Lakers are shorthanded while many of their first 10 games are against superior on-paper opponents.

What's to become of the Lakers if they start off the season 3-7? Or 2-8? Or 1-9? They're not built to rebound from dismal beginnings without Kobe. 

They're not built to win much at all without him.


Outside the First 10

Here's where things get even more dicey.

If Kobe isn't ready to go by Game 11 when the Lakers face the Memphis Grizzlies, the Lakers will be coming off a tough stretch of games still without the only man who can solve most of their problems.

You're sorely mistaken if you think the Lakers can emerge from a 10-game Kobe-less stretch at or above .500. If he misses that much time, they're going to struggle. Badly. Should he miss more time than that, it's going to be even worse.

Other teams aren't as banged up as the Lakers. Remember that. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be without Russell Westbrook for a while and James Harden's knee is a serious concern for the Rockets, but a majority of the Western Conference's teams aren't limping into the regular season.

After falling behind early, the Lakers won't be given the gift of a suddenly easy schedule. There's no such thing in the Western Conference.

Peruse through the 14 other teams and you'll find 11 of them could contend for a playoff berth. Only the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz aren't in the mix.

Coming back from a rough patch with Kobe will be difficult as it is. Doing it without him, well into the regular season, will end with a one-way ticket to the draft lottery.


Plans Change

The Lakers could know something we don't.

On the one hand, Kobe could be planning a surprise return very, very soon. I, for one, wouldn't put it past him. He's Kobe. Seeing him run out of the tunnel on opening night, cape strapped to his shoulders and ready to play wouldn't shock me (it's unlikely).

On the other hand, his recovery could be progressing slower than advertised. Or something could have gone wrong. Complications could have arisen.

Or, less likely, the Lakers could be slow balling this on purpose.

Per ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne, the Lakers are trying to lock Kobe up before he becomes a free agent next summer. As appreciated as Kobe is in Los Angeles, the Lakers aren't about to negotiate a new contract with him if there's more unnerving factors at play.

Instead, the Lakers could just be accepting that this isn't their year. They could recognize there's no championship to be won in Los Angeles (for the Clippers too, if that makes you feel any better), even with Kobe.

Knowing that they won't be contending for a title, they could be angling toward a higher draft selection. The more Kobe plays, the less likely it is they land a coveted spot. They could then be holding him out by design.

I'll be the first to admit, however, that's not happening. Kobe wouldn't allow it. Not before the season started and the Lakers had found out what they have.

So, consider this: What if Kobe misses some time to start the season (10-plus games or so), the Lakers stumble in the beginning and plans change?

Ten games is hardly enough to bury the Lakers six feet under, but it could be enough to change Kobe and the front office's perception of what's to come. If the Lakers are truly terrible early on, there's no sense in bringing Kobe back to play his heart out for nothing. 

Chances of the "Black Mamba" sitting out the entire season are slim. Nonexistent, I'd say. But he and the Lakers could milk this, take their time and remove any sense of urgency currently lingering. That could happen.

And if it does, the Lakers' season would be killed in the interest of not prolonging the inevitable.


Determining Their Lifespan 

All hope is not lost in Tinseltown.

Kobe isn't going to pull a Derrick Rose. Barring any unforeseen complications, he's going to play. And when he returns, he's going to play hard.

Not even he is capable of playing the Lakers out of any hole they're thrown in, though. His superpowers know certain boundaries.

Ten games. Those first 10 games are all the Lakers have. After that, if Kobe's not ready to play, they're not going to make the playoffs. They may toil with a postseason berth the way the Portland Trail Blazers did last season, but they'll never threaten the rest of the conference. Not really.

The West is too deep and harrowing an entity for the Lakers to mess around with marginal role players and additional injuries for an extended period of time, all without Kobe, and still have time to recover.

Of all the players on the Lakers roster, Kobe was the only one to average more than 15 points per game last season. Not 20 or 25—15. That's nothing. I know there are Cloud Nine-like hopes for "Swaggy P," Gasol and, mistakenly, Nash, but this roster is only built to withstand so much.

In order to make the playoffs, everything must go according to plan. Young must emerge as a viable No. 2 or 3. Gasol must return to his former, dominant self. Nash has to play, period. Relatively unknown-to-mediocre role players must step up and play prominent parts. And Kobe has to get healthy, and remain healthy.

"He's making progress and he'll be back as soon as he can," D'Antoni said, via McMenamin. "No use worrying about it."

For now, that's true. Soon enough, it won't be.



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