Will Kobe Bryant's Return Turn Lakers' Role Players into Afterthoughts?

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Will Kobe Bryant's Return Turn Lakers' Role Players into Afterthoughts?
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

With Kobe Bryant’s anticipated return to game action drawing ever nearer, a question emerges—will the Los Angeles Lakers’ role players turn back into mere afterthoughts?

Lakers fans better hope not because beyond Pau Gasol, that’s all they’ve got—role players.

Of the full 15-man roster, eight are playing under minimum salary contracts. Of the remaining seven players, four are earning between $1.55 and $4 million. And then there’s Steve Nash—you can call him a role player or a star, but it’s somewhat beside the point since he’s not playing anyway.

Bryant’s return will be one of the biggest stories of the year, of this there is no doubt. Cameras will be rolling and words will be breathlessly typed. There will be every kind of sound bite, media spin, great expectation and most assuredly, rush to judgment that you can imagine. His explosiveness will be measured and his stat line analyzed. Is he the same as he was before? Can he still carry the team on his shoulders?

The question of afterthoughts when it comes to the rest of the Lakers is a case of perception. It is not and won’t be, reality. It can’t be, and Bryant more than anyone knows this. And, it’s nothing new.

During the Phil Jackson era—the one that brought five NBA championships—the term role player was used with respect. Its lineage went back to the Chicago Bulls days, but we won’t belabor history. Suffice to say that for the Lakers’ three-peat, Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were the superstars, and everyone else was a role player. O’Neal was replaced in time by Gasol and Andrew Bynum, but that didn’t change the dynamic or necessity of lesser lights with lesser salaries.

That was then; this is now. Bryant is heading into his 18th season in the NBA. The ones that came before were long, brutal and extremely successful. Now he’s trying to accomplish something rare and difficult—a return from Achilles surgery and at an elite level, no less.

Bryant needs his teammates. He knows that and they know that. Will some of them see less game time with the Mamba back in action? Absolutely. That doesn’t mean, however, that the role players as a collective will disappear into the ether.

Who is most likely to see reduced minutes?

First, there’s the question of whether Bryant returns at his usual two-guard slot or whether he moves out to the small forward position. The latter would save some wear and tear on his legs and allow him to post up more as well as freelance from the wing.

Regardless, the guys who are most likely to see less action will probably include one or more of the following: Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks and Xavier Henry.

Young and Johnson have mostly shared time at the small forward position the last several games while Meeks has been the starting shooting guard. It would be easy enough to look at Henry’s 18.8 minutes-per-game and assume that he’ll be the odd man out, but it’s not that simple.

The Lakers will have to go through a period of transition. It’s easy to imagine Bryant coming back in a blaze of glory—lighting up the scoreboard and surrounded by the press afterward. Common sense, however, dictates that the initial rush of enthusiasm, adrenaline and fanfare will soon give way to adjustments, physical realities and a season that will still stretch ahead.

Coach D’Antoni will have tough decisions to make, and they won’t be written in stone. Let’s not forget, however, that the idea of signing all of these minimum salary free agents to short-term deals was as an extended audition process. Bryant has now been signed for a two year extension that will take him through his 20th, and presumably last, season.

The Lakers need role players. Kobe Bryant’s not going to be out on the floor playing five-on-one, at least not for 48 minutes-per-game. Yes, there will still be moments of hero ball. Yes, there will be times when guys stand there and simply watch. Still, if we’ve seen anything during the early part of the season, it’s that the Lakers without Bryant have been playing effective team ball.

When Bryant finally does make his return—whenever that might be—he will need a supporting cast around him. And if the Lakers are to make any kind of run in the playoffs this season, those guys will have to stay in the present and not fade away.

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