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Kobe Must Lead the LA Lakers, Not Save Them

EL SEGUNDO, CA - DECEMBER 3:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots during practice on December 3, 2013 at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
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David MurphyFeatured ColumnistDecember 7, 2013

The anticipation for Kobe Bryant's return against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday is approaching royal wedding levels.

Questions abound, including what kind of player he’ll be and what he’ll mean to the team.

To be fair, this is a longstanding Bryant narrative. His star power is so great, his talent level so high and his competitive nature so off the charts, that speculation about his role is a part of each and every season. This time around of course, the situation is amplified.

There’s the question of health, of durability and explosiveness—the public has seen him play only in snippets from practice. He’ll also be playing with six new teammates in Nick YoungWesley Johnson, Xavier Henry, Shawne Williams, Chris Kaman and Ryan Kelly. Of the guys that Bryant has played with before, Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar are both sidelined.

What will Bryant’s inclination be? Jump in and take over or lead in a more cohesive way? According to Marc Spears for Yahoo! Sports, the Los Angeles Lakers head coach is hoping that Bryant’s teammates won’t simply be playing in awe of him:

A lot of times they will stand around and watch him...We have been playing a certain way so we have to guard against that.

There’s also the question of whether the Lakers need saving at this point. At 10-9, their record puts them a game out of eighth place in the Western Conference playoff picture as of Saturday. In other words, the West is all bunched up. The Lakers’ record won’t motivate anyone to start putting champagne on ice, but its also not panic city. Plus, the season is still young.

One of the most interesting things to watch for when Bryant takes the floor is positional adjustment. With Nash and Farmar out, the team only has one true point guard. In D’Antoni’s system, ball movement comes from a point guard-centric philosophy, relying on pick-and-roll sets to allow the ball-handler to find open targets.

Will Bryant in fact find himself with the ball in his hand, and if so, what will it be called? According to Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angles, D’Antoni is taking a straightforward view of the situation:

“He’s going to have the ball,” D’Antoni said. So, whenever you have the ball you’re the point guard.

Speaking in the same article, Bryant elaborated:

It’s being able to facilitate and score when the defense dictates it, so it’s no difference, Bryant said. I’d be more of the push man, obviously, just getting up and down. But, honestly it’s no difference than how I played my entire career, really. Just handling the ball, getting us into stuff and pushing it.

D’Antoni showed some flexibility last season to accommodate a slower, older roster. This season, the addition of younger, more athletic players, as well as Farmar and Blake becoming more comfortable with an uptempo offense, have allowed for more prototypical D’Antoni sets. Nobody knows how much push Bryant will have in his surgically repaired Achilles, but using him as a facilitator has its advantages—defenders can’t afford to sag off him, and they also can’t leave the corners unguarded.

It’s an all-too-common mistake to simply label Bryant as a hero player, as someone whose only concern is lighting up the scoreboard. He averaged six assists per game last season, and there’s no reason to doubt that he'll look to set the table and keep his teammates involved as he returns for his 18th NBA season.

Also, Blake is averaging 7.8 assists per game this season, a career high. And here’s one more stat for you—the Lakers currently have made the second-most three-pointers in the NBA (203).

There seems to be a logical path here. Continue moving the ball, spreading the floor and hitting the open shots. The question for many, especially those who tend to view Bryant in absolutes, is whether he and the Lakers can stick to what’s mostly worked, or whether his zeal for a return to greatness will help throw a fairly balanced team out of balance.

The true wild card here may not be Bryant himself but his young charges.

Contrary to what Bryant’s critics will say, he has often played the willing setup man in the early parts of the game, waiting until it becomes necessary to launch into takeover mode. Jodie Meeks, Blake, Johnson, Young and Williams have been launching outside shots all season when presented with the opportunity. Will they continue doing so with one of the most dominant presences of all time back on the floor? Or will they wilt and pass the ball back to Kobe?

Bryant will give his teammates the open look. But don’t be shy and don’t be apologetic. The Mamba is willing but not infinitely patient. He’ll lead by orchestrating, but if his teammates stand around and stare, Bryant will get that all-too-familiar set to his jaw and make a sweeping gesture with his hand that means get the [redacted word] out of my way.

When that happens, it’s go-time for the Mamba.

The situation may become clearer on Sunday, but remember, for Bryant, the clock resets continually.

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