Kobe Bryant's Pending Return Does Not Make Los Angeles Lakers Legit Contender

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistNovember 22, 2013

SHANGHAI, CHINA - OCTOBER 17:  Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers walks on the court at NBA Fans Appreciation day on October 17, 2013 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Kevin Lee/Getty Images)
Kevin Lee/Getty Images

All NBA onlookers have their timers set for Kobe Bryant's eventual return to action, but don't count on the Black Mamba leading the Los Angeles Lakers anywhere close to the promised land.

It should surprise nobody that the insatiable star is zooming past his expected timetable of recovery from an injured heel. According to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne, Bryant participated in five-on-five drills on Tuesday and left the door open for making his season debut before the month ends.

"Yeah, yeah I can," Bryant said when probed about his chances of playing in November.

Then again, Bryant would try to play if his arms and legs were all chopped off the previous evening. A day after he practiced, head coach Mike D'Antoni expressed some more caution, per ESPN LA's Dave McMenamin.

"I want to be a little careful because we're going to have a few games before he comes back," D'Antoni said.

Bryant's persistent urge for greatness is not well suited for sitting idly on the sideline, and that restlessness is not at all placated by his team's 5-7 start. But if the Lake Show can scrape out five victories without Bryant, what could they do with their leader reporting to duty?

Probably not as much as everyone would like to think. 

Last season, Bryant somehow found a way to make his 17th year one of his best. He scored 27.3 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, to go along with 6.0 assists and 5.6 boards per contest. His 50.4 effective field goal percentage, which weighs three-pointers more heavily than twos, represents a career high.

However, it seems foolish to bet against Bryant, as his persona suggests he can will his way through every obstacle and perform better than ever upon taking the floor. But he's a 35-year-old who entered the NBA as a teenager, so he's already logged 1,275.6 minutes over his career.

That's a lot of basketball.

It's reasonable to at least expect some fatigue during his opening bouts, which means vintage Mamba might not truly grace us with his presence until later in 2014.

But even if Bryant drops 40 in his first night back and immediately performs as a top-10 superstar, the supporting cast is simply not strong enough to compete with a loaded batch of Western Conference adversaries.

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 15: Kevin Love #42 and Ricky Rubio #9 of the Minnesota Timberwolves celebrate during the game against the Denver Nuggets on November 15, 2013 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Bart Young/Getty Images

The 7-5 Memphis Grizzlies, who made the Western Conference Finals last year and are more recently winners of four straight, currently occupy the No. 8 seed.

If the season ended today, the Minnesota Timberwolves would miss the postseason despite possessing a plus-6.4 point differential per game and play from Kevin Love that would garner MVP consideration in a world without LeBron James.

In the East, Bryant alone guides this squad to a playoff bid. In the West, one guy is not enough to save a sinking ship.

Even more concerning than Bryant potentially slipping is Pau Gasol and Steve Nash deteriorating before our eyes.

No longer expelled to the perimeter due to Dwight Howard's presence, Gasol is still struggling mightily with a 39.5 field goal percentage. His current 14.5 PER would set a new career worst, and the team averages just 90 points per 100 possessions while he plays.

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 30: Steve Nash #10 and Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers are worked on in the training room prior to a game against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena on October 30, 2013 at in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Derailed by back ailments, Nash has played just six games, during which he shot 26.1 percent. It's gotten so bad that retirement rumors surfaced, but per McMenamin, Nash has denied that speculation.

Still, a hobbled Nash or fading Steve Blake is no match for Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Ricky Rubio, Mike Conley or Damian Lillard. There's a surplus of star point guards out West, and not having one puts the Lakers at a major disadvantage.

Bryant also eased up a tad defensively last year, posting a 107 defensive rating. A team already going through the motions defensively will need more help than that.

It's fun to envision Bryant eviscerating the league to add one more name to the laundry list of contenders in the West, but his return is not enough to make the Lakers a credible player.

Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.


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