Los Angeles Lakers

Predicting When Kobe Bryant Will Return to LA Lakers Starting Lineup

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 20, 2013

Predicting When Kobe Bryant Will Return to LA Lakers Starting Lineup

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    The waiting game continues for Kobe Bryant's return from a torn Achilles, but there's a new level of excitement for Los Angeles Lakers fans.

    The Black Mamba told B/R's own Kevin Ding that he could see himself playing before the end of November.

    It sounds fantastic at first, the thought of Bryant's first NBA action since April 12 coming within a month's time. But it gets better than that. As the intoxicating aroma of Thanksgiving feasts takes over your brain, you realize just how close to the end of this month we really are.

    This is only the start of Bryant's test, wrote ESPN.com's J.A. Adande, "whether he'll wait until he's completely ready to come back, or will he be overwhelmed by eagerness to return." Patience is a virtue at 21, but it's a necessity for the 35-year-old Bryant.

    "You have to kind of detach yourself somewhat and make sure that when you come back, you're ready to give the team the proper lift," Bryant told Adande. "It's very tough to do that, but it's something that has to be done."

    With the safety precautions out of the way, though, just how long will basketball fans be waiting to see Bryant back in the purple and gold? The Lakers' upcoming schedule certainly gives him some intriguing options.

     

    *Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

November 22

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Opponent: Golden State Warriors

    Location: Staples Center (Los Angeles)

    Motivation: First chance to return

     

    Likelihood: This might be tempting fate. After all, it was on this floor against these Warriors when Bryant tore his left Achilles tendon last season.

    Worries of a repeat disaster shouldn't be necessary, though. Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni told ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin that it's a bit "premature" to start planning for a Bryant-Dubs reunion.

    Although, this is Bryant we're talking about. It's tough to place the word "impossible" on anything he might do.

    He'll have some fuel to give this one a go, and not just from the exhaustive layoff of his rehab. The Warriors have largely been California's afterthought throughout Bryant's career, and he surely wouldn't mind sending a scare through this Pacific Division rival.

    So, logic says D'Antoni's probably right. This does feel a bit premature, even by Bryant's standards.

    But it's unlikely, not unimaginable, until the Lakers officially say otherwise.

November 24

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Opponent: Sacramento Kings

    Location: Staples Center (Los Angeles)

    Motivation: Pressure-free test before road trip

     

    Likelihood: This just doesn't feel like Bryant's style. The thought of him bypassing the 8-3 Warriors for a shot at the 3-7 Kings some 48 hours later doesn't mesh with his career narrative.

    Logically, though, it seems like a decent option to explore.

    New Kings coach Michael Malone doesn't have the bodies to implement his defensive system. Sacramento has holes all over the floor (104.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, tied for 23rd).

    Marcus Thornton could yield another 81-point performance to Bryant. Ben McLemore has 10 NBA games under his belt, so putting him on Bryant is like sacrificing him to the basketball gods.

    More than a potentially bloated box score, though, this contest would be a good measuring stick for Bryant before the Lakers take off for a three-game road trip. If his body doesn't respond well, he'll have a full week of rest before L.A. comes back home.

    If he's in a position to play now, expect Bryant to push hard for the Warriors game. But don't be surprised if the team tries selling him on this one.

    Both feel early, though, so the wait likely continues.

November 27

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Opponent: Brooklyn Nets

    Location: Barclays Center (Los Angeles)

    Motivation: Rivalry renewed

     

    Likelihood: This is like the anti-Kings game.

    It defies logic, the thought of Bryant returning in the middle of a road trip for the second night of a back-to-back set.

    But it does serve Vino the showman quite well.

    With Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce now in Brooklyn, Bryant could exorcise some demons in this matchup. While his Lakers got the last laugh on KG and Pierce's Celtics in 2010, Bryant probably spends more time reliving his nightmare of the 2008 NBA Finals.

    This game would have the billing of a prizefight, even if neither team remotely resembles a contender. If Bryant's looking for the right setting to start his last chapter, this would fit the villainous role that he plays so well.

    He'll get a hero's welcome from the Staples Center faithful whether that's the site of his first actual game or not. If he'd rather return to a chorus of boos, why not savor the moment with a pair of his oldest rivals?

December 1

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    Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

    Opponent: Portland Trail Blazers

    Location: Staples Center (Los Angeles)

    Motivation: Maintaining alpha status

     

    Likelihood: This is a good dark-horse pick for your Bryant return pools.

    Given his comments to Ding, there might be overwhelming support for his November games. But leaving the month only by one day has its benefits.

    Following L.A.'s East Coast swing, the Lakers return home for this contest. Then, they have four days off before returning to action.

    Bryant could have the comforts of his home floor and all the rest his body would need.

    But the opponent adds its own level of intrigue.

    The Blazers (9-2) have the second-best record in the West and a budding superstar in sophomore Damian Lillard (20.0 points, 6.1 assists and 4.5 rebounds). If Lillard wants to go shot-for-shot with Bryant, the 15-time All-Star would gladly serve up a history lesson.

    This could be a statement win for his Lakers and a glaring display of just how motivated he really is, by disproving all the doomsday predictions that rained down this summer.

December 13

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    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Opponent: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Location: Chesapeake Energy Arena (Oklahoma City)

    Motivation: Western Conference wake-up call

     

    Likelihood: If statement wins are what he's after, Bryant may already have this game circled.

    The Thunder (7-3) might not have established Western Conference dominance just yet, but with Kevin Durant and a healthy Russell Westbrook in tow, that day could be coming.

    This is a rivalry Bryant's been trying to ignite for a while. His trash talk at Durant and Westbrook during the 2012 Olympics was reportedly relentless, via B/R's Ric Bucher, and the Thunder's duo could have dished it right back while taking 3-of-4 in their season series in 2012-13.

    An up-tempo game doesn't seem like the best scenario for someone coming off this type of injury. But Bryant's a different breed. The fact that both the Lakers (101.1 possessions per 48 minutes) and the Thunder (99.6) play at a fast pace could give the Mamba the storybook stat sheet that his return deserves.

    Two things have to happen to make this a possibility. He needs to be on-board with fielding three-plus weeks worth of questions about his return. He also must embrace the idea of making his 2013-14 debut on the road.

    The latter is more likely than the former, but both seem like good possibilities. If he's not back before this game, he'll have a hard time sitting this one out.

December 20

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Opponent: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Location: Staples Center (Los Angeles)

    Motivation: Holiday tune-up

     

    Likelihood: This doesn't have the flair of a marquee matchup, but it's hardly a throwaway game.

    With Kevin Love controlling the glass (13.4 rebounds), Ricky Rubio flashing his next-level court vision (9.0 assists) and Kevin Martin dropping bombs from distance (45.2 three-point percentage), the Wolves have emerged as one of basketball's best offensive shows.

    Bryant and L.A.'s coaching staff could both benefit from making this his return date.

    For Bryant, this is the chance to knock off seven months of rust before a can't-miss Christmas game. He'd have this contest and a quick two-game road trip to prepare himself for those bright holiday lights.

    As for the coaches, this steers him clear of the three-game road swing to close out November and a four-game road trip in the middle of December. This starts a stretch where the Lakers play six of nine games at the Staples Center, so Bryant would have ample opportunity to find his bearings heading into the New Year.

    It's a measuring-stick game, but not quite as challenging as some of the ones on this list. This might be asking too much of Bryant's patience, but it's a potential gift if he's willing to wait.

December 25

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Opponent: Miami Heat

    Location: Staples Center (Los Angeles Lakers)

    Motivation: Christmas gift to the basketball world

     

    Likelihood: There's no way Bryant misses this game.

    Following last season's 34-point performance on Dec. 25, Bryant is now the league's all-time scoring leader for Christmas games (383 points and counting). He also ranks second in assists, fourth in steals and second in made threes for the NBA's holiday special.

    With the eyes of the basketball world tracking his movement, the Mamba rarely disappoints.

    Between Bryant's return and LeBron James' annual visit to L.A., this could make an historic impact on the global ratings.

    It's like two generations facing off with one another. Bryant, the heir apparent to Michael Jordan, and James, the heir apparent to Bryant. With Jordan only fueling the fire of this rivalry, both players have something to prove and a stage for proving.

    It's still hard to see Bryant waiting this long and going into this contest without the help of some in-game seasoning. But if he hasn't returned by this point, Lakers fans will have one heck of a present awaiting them.

     

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