Apparently, there are some who feel this way.
Isn't a little early for the doom and gloom, Mr. Van Gundy? The path to the playoffs may not be an easy one, especially in the Western Conference. That doesn’t mean you bury the team’s hopes, not with 59 games left to go in the regular season. And not with Bryant back in the picture.
Of course, nobody really expects the Lakers to contend for a championship this season. Nobody that is, except for Bryant.
Per Mark Medina for the LA Daily News, Bryant still has his eyes on the ultimate prize.
“I want to win a championship,” Bryant said. “I want to be playing in June.”
As Medina goes on to note, Bryant isn’t delusional, he’s mindful of the Lakers’ current standings as well as the inevitable trade rumors as management mulls potential roster improvements.
He understands the Lakers (11-12) just snapped a three-game losing streak and stand in 12th place in the Western Conference. Bryant also holds out hope that his 21 points on 8 of 15 shooting and seven assists in 32 minutes continuously shows he’ll morph back into the player that once made him great.
In Bryant's own words (per Medina):
Obviously we have some improvements to make, whether it ‘s with the guys we have in the locker room or whatever management wants to do, I have no idea about that, but it’s not my job to focus on that, Bryant said. It’s our job to focus on what we have and making sure we’re making the necessary improvements every day to get there.
Championship talk is all well and good and you wouldn’t expect anything else from Bryant. For now however, let’s just look at the general playoff picture—you’ve got to actually get in before you can advance. We’ll start by checking off a few items on the laundry list.
Things weighing against the Lakers’ chances:
- Three injured point guards, including Steve Nash, who’s been playing since the beginning of time. There’s a pretty good chance Nash’s clock has run out.
- A less-than-durable front line. Pau Gasol has creaky knees, a sprained ankle and sometimes, hurt feelings as well. Chris Kaman recently sat out nine games in a row with a bad back and Jordan Hill, whose take-no-prisoners style doesn’t always benefit his injury-prone body, has been dealing with a sore left ankle.
- A highly competitive Western Conference.
Things weighing in the Lakers’ favor:
Let’s start out in reverse order with the standings. The Western Conference is all bunched up. The Lakers may currently be in the 12th slot but are just four games out of fourth place and 2.5 games out of eighth—that’s how tight it is.
The frontcourt may have some bumps and bruises but on Saturday night in Charlotte, it helped deliver a win. Gasol had 15 points in 32 minutes, Hill had 15 points plus nine boards in 31 minutes, Shawne Williams had five points, five boards, two assists and a block in 17 minutes and utility center Robert Sacre filled in the gaps for just under 16 minutes.
"I think, I hope, I come back way ahead of schedule.”
And we haven’t even considered Bryant yet.
On Saturday, Bryant had his most complete game yet since returning from the brutal Achilles injury that had many questioning whether he’d ever return or if he did, how effective he’d be. Bryant’s story is far from complete but the win against the Bobcats at least provided a positive start. He scored 21 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in 32 minutes.
Per Trevor Wong for the official Lakers website, Bryant said afterward that he feels fine, even after a back-to-back:
My foot is feeling a lot stronger. My Achilles feels fine. It’s just the other muscles around there that are just getting used to running and jumping.
So Bryant’s making progress, Farmar may be coming back and the frontcourt is managing to hold its own. Is that enough to get a team to the playoffs in the west?
Not in and of itself but where’s the evidence that the reverse is any more accurate? In what playoff conversation is this team relegated to the burial pile?
The Lakers managed a balanced scoring attack before Bryant returned and are now beginning the inevitable adjustment period as he returns to the game, bringing his championship expectations with him.
The season is still relatively young. Nobody can truly predict the playoff picture. But you have to at least include Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in the playoff conversation. And if you choose not to, you’re betting against history and against Bryant—the 15-time All-Star has missed the playoffs just once in his NBA career.