Kobe Bryant is expected to return this month, and a strong start could put a smile on the faces of Los Angeles Lakers fans.
A 114-108 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 1 had just about everything. Two large deficits, two monstrous comebacks, a massive performance from Xavier Henry and a miserable showing from Pau Gasol.
Expect the rest of the month to be somewhat similar. Barring a catastrophic setback, Kobe Bryant should make his return, and while the Mamba's comeback should rejuvenate the franchise, it's not going to miraculously solve all of its problems.
Unfortunately for fans and analysts, we don't have a crystal ball that can see into the future. But while there's no way to guarantee what comes next, there are a few things we can predict at this point in the process.
Expect this team to find more success than it did in November, but don't be shocked when there are a few downers along the way.
"You are officially not what you were anymore, and it's never going to change."
Those words directed at Pau Gasol come courtesy of ESPN's Mark Willard, and while they're harsh to say the least, they're likely accurate if you consider health, age and production.
Each season, Gasol finds himself surrounded by rumors. This year should prove to be no exception, but the question is: Will we hear as much about trades as we'll hear about free agency?
Gasol has an expiring contract, and as desirable as that will be for suitors across the league, it's just as desirable for the Lakers. The rebuilding roster is analyzing its cap situation entering 2014, and it's looking less and less as if Gasol will be a part of the budget.
Trading Gasol doesn't make as much sense this year as it would have in 2012-13, but that won't stop the rumor mill from churning. The 7-footer is a popular topic each and every season, and the less production he offers the Lakers, the more people will talk about his inevitable departure.
When the Los Angeles Lakers lost Dwight Howard to free agency, the franchise scrambled to grab as much loose talent as it possibly could. Chris Kaman looked like a shrewd signing at the time, but he's become one of the least valuable players on the 2013-14 roster.
Despite recovering from an early-season injury, Kaman simply can't find minutes. Mike D'Anonti has moved him out of the rotation altogether, and there's virtually no scenario where that changes anytime soon.
Neither party is getting what it bargained for in this deal. The Lakers wanted a big who could soften the blow after Howard left, and Kaman wanted a place to play and prove he's still a quality center.
At this juncture, we can't expect the big man to stay quiet much longer, and if the Lakers are smart, they'll move him before he lowers his value by requesting a trade.
Steve Nash is not the player he once was, and people around the league are starting to accept that.
While the Los Angeles Lakers could certainly use more firepower, Nash wasn't providing that even when he was relatively healthy. On the season, the point guard is averaging 6.7 points on 26.1 percent shooting, and he's collecting 4.8 assists while playing just 22.5 minutes per night.
Bringing back Nash too soon could be catastrophic to what's left of his career, and it doesn't make sense to rush this process.
Luckily for Mike D'Antoni, he has a point guard who has played well in his system. Steve Blake is averaging double-digit points for just the second time in his career, and he's shooting the ball from downtown to the tune of 42.9 percent.
He's also collecting 7.7 assists per game, which gives the Lakers the facilitator they've needed in Nash's absence.
Blake doesn't carry the mystique that Nash has, but at this point, it's about production. Nash needs to be as close to 100 percent as he can be before making his return, and chances are, we won't see that before the New Year.
According to Pau Gasol (via ESPN's Dave McMenamin), Kobe Bryant has looked "really good" in practice. We all expect him to come back sooner rather than later, but the question is: How productive can he be?
Pau Gasol said Kobe looked "really good" at practice. How about Nash? Pau: "I can't say he looked as good as Kobe"— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) December 3, 2013
Upon his return, expect Bryant to fight the minute restriction that Mike D'Antoni may want to instill. It would be smart to slowly bring Bryant back, but as we've learned in the past, the Black Mamba really only moves at one speed.
As of Dec. 5, the NBA's top scorers are James Harden (23.8 PPG), Paul George (24.6 PPG), LeBron James (26.0 PPG), Carmelo Anthony (26.3 PPG) and Kevin Durant (28.5 PPG). The Lakers' bench has been good, but it hasn't been good enough to prevent Bryant from knocking Harden off the list.
If the 35-year-old comes back anything like himself, he'll have no problem earning a place among the best. How long he can sustain it is a whole different question; one we'll come to during the second half of the season.
The Los Angeles Lakers have somehow managed to exceed expectations while still disappointing their fans. That's a feat not many teams can claim, and it's what makes this group so polarizing during its current situation.
Where the team has excelled is developing chemistry. Part of that has to do with Mike D'Antoni's 11-man rotation from early in the year, but it is also about a group of young players coming together and forming an identity in times of uncertainty.
Unfortunately for L.A., it is still looked at as a lottery contender, as it has floated around .500 the entire first month of the season.
That's where Kobe Bryant comes in.
Bringing Bryant back to the starting lineup will inevitably disrupt chemistry. "Sacrificing unity" might be a bit extreme, but the fact is that the boat will be rocked when Bryant's minutes overshadow the stars of the early season.
Combine the schedule with Bryant's return, and you've got the makeup of a strong push into the New Year.