Like so many other debates about Bryant’s return, this one has no perfectly correct answer.
While there isn’t a one-adjustment-fixes-all solution, there is ample reason to put the largest portion squarely on Bryant’s plate.
The first priority is adapting to his own body after Achilles surgery. This is the most obvious and crucial part of the equation. It determines on-court effectiveness, health and longevity.
Bryant recently signed on for two more seasons after this current one. If he’s going to make it to the end of his 20th year in the league, it will need to be with the acceptance of the body’s natural aging process as well as a recognition of how his repaired ankle could affect the rest of his body.
After Bryant’s surgery, Dr. Neal ElAttrache spoke with Sam Farmer of the L.A. Times about the rehabilitation process and the importance of not rushing back.
Some things you can’t speed up. The biology of the healing tendon is paramount for the first three months. If you try to exceed that and you hurt that healing tendon and stretch it out, it’s not something that you can reverse.
To his credit, Bryant chose a methodical path back, rehabbing religiously, taking minor setbacks in stride and finally participating in full five-on-five practices. Recently, he acknowledged the possibility that his athleticism might not remain the same.
Howard Beck for Bleacher Report brings the story of Bryant’s willingness to embrace more of an earth-bound game if necessary:
“There’s different ways I can go,” Bryant said, striking a reflective tone. “Obviously, the easier of the two would be if I could have the same type of explosiveness that I had last year. It makes my game very easy. But if it’s not there, I’m ready to adapt.”
Bryant has also shown a willingness to accept reduced minutes as he gets back up to speed, as Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News tweeted.
And doesn’t this go directly to the question at hand? The acceptance, even if temporary, of limitations?
Next comes the idea of adapting not only to himself, but to others. Bryant has a lot of new teammates this season, including guys who like to score the ball—guys like Nick "Swaggy P" Young, who’s been playing the small forward position recently rather than his usual shooting guard slot.
Will Bryant defer to others and even get them involved? Sure he will. And if you doubt his ability to set the table, just check out the passing clinic below:
There’s also the matter of a lack of point guards. Jordan Farmer tore a hamstring Sunday night against the Trail Blazers, Steve Blake is dealing with a hyper-extended right elbow and Steve Nash hasn’t played since November 10.
Bryant may find himself playing alongside Xavier Henry, a shooting guard who likes to score the ball and is now learning to run the point.
Finally, there’s the other part of the headline—will the Lakers have to adjust to Bryant?
Most definitely, but again, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Half the team has already been down this road before. Pau Gasol has been with Bryant through great years and abysmal years. Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks, Robert Sacre, Farmar, Nash and Blake have all played alongside the Mamba.
Certainly, there will be an adjustment process for the new guys, and there’s also the matter of an entire team that has found a certain rhythm. They’re sharing the ball as evidenced by scoring—nine players fall within a six-point spread, between 8.3 and 14.3 points per game. Additionally, 12 players are averaging double figures in minutes played per game.
One of the mutual challenges for both Bryant and his teammates is the issue of pace. Mike D’Antoni’s current offense isn’t as fast as his legendary seven seconds or less system in Phoenix, but it’s still quicker than anything Phil Jackson ever ran.
The team will have to alter certain fast-break opportunities as Bryant gets his legs back under him, perhaps allowing him to act as more of a frontcourt trailer at times.
Ultimately, adjustments will be what they've always been. Bryant is notoriously driven and sometimes difficult. Age and injuries may mellow the brew a little, but c’mon, this is No. 24 after all. Everybody knows that the time will come when he demands the ball, juts out his jaw and goes for the kill.
Bryant will make the biggest accommodations—he knows it’s necessary in order to win. But don’t expect him to change his colors completely and certainly not at the end of the game in those special moments, when a legend can still make the difference.
That’s Black Mamba time.