Lakers Can't Afford to Ask Kobe Bryant to Play Savior Immediately

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Lakers Can't Afford to Ask Kobe Bryant to Play Savior Immediately
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

As positive progress reports continue to surface, Kobe Bryant's return to the NBA hardwood gets closer by the second.

But the days of putting the Los Angeles Lakers on his shoulders are well off in the distance. Or, they should be at least.

Bryant hasn't logged a minute of game time since a torn Achilles ended his 2012-13 campaign April 12. His rehab has been an arduous process, a series of tests gauging both his physical and mental strengths.

Those tests are far from over. And they're no longer his alone.

Getting Bryant back on the court is just one part of this battle. The road that now lies ahead is littered with potential pitfalls standing between Bryant, the Lakers and that purple and gold light at the end of the tunnel Bryant has worked so relentlessly hard to reach.

 

The Kobe Bryant Balancing Act

There is no common standard by which to measure Bryant. Most people can't even dream about the things he does, let alone actually go out and do them.

So, when Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni mentioned that "there probably will be something" along the lines of a minutes restriction whenever Bryant returns, via Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, the words came with a grain of salt.

Remember the last time Bryant's minutes and D'Antoni were mentioned in the same sentence? When everyone rushed to blame the coach for Mamba's injury after D'Antoni allotted him 45.6 minutes a night over his last seven games of 2012-13?

Remember Bryant's response?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

"Mike [D'Antoni] is really going to tell me when to go in and out of the game?" a laughing Bryant said at his exit interview, via Bresnahan.

Bryant's simply a different beast. The kind that scrapes off eight months of rust with a cringe-worthy yet inspiring slam during a meaningless practice session.

He's been out to prove doubters wrong since before those doubters existed. As B/R's own Kevin Ding wrote, Bryant feels "he can always accomplish the unexpected."

L.A.'s season was far from being expectation free. It's just those expectations read more like doomsday prophecies, a fact that didn't get past the Mamba.

But none of that can affect this narrative.

Despite 17 years of evidence suggesting otherwise, Bryant is human. He needs time to recover, a procedure that won't be solved in his 2013-14 debut alone.

He's close to getting into game shape. Almost every Bryant news nugget coming out of the Lakers' camp is overwhelmingly positive:

But that injury and all of those months lost, they all happened. And they've all had their effects.

Asking a 35-year-old returning from a significant injury to kick-start an often sputtering offense (101.4 points per 100 possessions, 19th) and patch a leaky defense (102.7 points allowed per 100 trips, tied for 17th) borders on cruel and unusual punishment.

We all know Bryant would welcome that challenge. But this shouldn't be his call to make.

 

Thinning but Important Ranks

These Lakers might be thin on talent, but they're heavy on heart.

"We have fighters on our team," Xavier Henry said, via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.

The problem, though, is that Bryant's absence is hardly the lone knockout blow this rotation has suffered.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Via CBS Sports, the Lakers are tied for the league lead with four entries on the injury report: Bryant, Pau Gasol (ankle), Steve Nash (back) and Jordan Farmar (hamstring). Absent from that group is Steve Blake, who Bresnahan noted used his off-hand in a shootaround Dec. 1 because his hyperextended right elbow was in so much pain.

Farmar's out of the equation until at least January with a tear in his left hamstring. Nash hasn't played since Nov. 10, and his updates have been anything but positive:

Obviously, Bryant's progress is a welcomed development. But throwing too much at him too soon is a massive risk for this franchise.

The last thing Lakers fans could stomach is losing the Mamba again. Expect the team trainers to keep a cautious eye on him, but doctors can't change the fact that he's 35 years old.

But there's more at stake than Bryant's health.

His absence freed up L.A.'s supporting cast to stake its claim for more minutes. The results haven't always been consistent, but for the large part, they've been encouraging.

Nick Young hasn't gotten too reckless (14.2 points on .441/.364 shooting). Jodie Meeks has shown he's more than a long-ball specialist (.491/.448/.837 slash line). Henry's been a grinder on defense and an unexpected lift at the opposite end (9.2 points, 45.2 three-point percentage). Wesley Johnson's done a little bit of everything (8.4 points, 3.7 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.0 steals).

The Lakers and Bryant need these players to keep contributing. Banishing one, or more, to the end of the bench so the Mamba can get major minutes out of the gate helps no one.

Bryant will have enough on his plate as it is. This team needs a go-to scoring option (Gasol's currently the high man with 14.3 points). If Nash and/or Blake can't shake the injury bug, it needs a distributor, too.

D'Antoni may have no choice but to throw all those roles onto Bryant's shoulders. But he has to remember to do it in limited doses early on.

The Lakers have patiently waited for months to see Bryant back in action. But patience will be crucial going forward, for this season and beyond.

 

Marathon, Not a Sprint

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

For everything the 2013-14 season has already shown, there's still so much to be learned.

The Lakers, along with 29 other teams, have yet to hit the 20-game mark. So much will change between now and April that it's hard making any definitive statements at this point.

Maybe this team does have a playoff push in its future. But if it takes running Bryant ragged (again) to get to that point, what's really the potential payoff? Another early postseason exit?

To make even the slightest bit of significant playoff noise, the Lakers will need Bryant to hit his stride in spring time, not the middle of winter.

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More than that, though, Bryant's return should not be viewed through a one-year lens. Preservation preparations must be made for restoring the Mamba's health for this season and the two he added on his recent contract extension.

Next summer is so vital for this franchise's relevance.

Easing Bryant back into the fold at the expense of the wins column is hardly a worst-case scenario. The 2014 draft class is stocked with potential running mates, and eventual replacements, for Bryant.

But the Lakers also need to find a difference-maker in free agency. And that player, whoever it may be, will need to be convinced of Bryant's endurance, not his top speed.

Flashes of brilliance might help L.A.'s recruiting power, but players will be more focused on the full picture that Bryant paints this season.

The Mamba can still be this franchise's savior. He's masterfully played that role so many times before.

But don't expect him to play that part right out of the gate; true Lakers fans shouldn't want him to, either.

 

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

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