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Why It's Too Early to Judge What Version of Kobe Bryant LA Lakers Are Getting

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 16:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands during a free throw against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on December 16, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 18, 2013

These things take time, even when you're Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Lakers fans aren't accustomed to reading those words in succession. Supporting one of the most storied franchises in all of sports gives them that luxury.

During the Buss family era, it's been contend now. Win now. Plan for later while securing championships. Kobe Bryant's time in purple and gold has only confirmed that approach.

Five championships in 17 years is something. Solidifying yourself as one of the greatest to ever grace the court—that's something. And it's the reason why Kobe's return from a ruptured Achilles has been dissected by so many different scalpels, even though it's much too early for anything other than lionized guesswork.

Lakers fans, and NBA fans in general, have come to expect the best from Kobe because that's all they've ever seen. And with such beliefs comes effrontery.

Snap judgments are made and taken as established fact. It has to be true, because there has to be an answer now. Waiting is not an acceptable course of action. Instant gratification is the standard.

That makes it difficult to understand that the Kobe we see now, however it is you perceive him, isn't the Kobe Los Angeles will ultimately get.

He and the Lakers will unearth answers eventually. In due time, the version of Kobe we see will actually be Kobe. But not right now.

This is beta Kobe, who is in the early stages of his career's final chapter, a chapter requiring patience, which is something a fanbase and team addicted to living in the moment must finally understand.

 

Still New to This Whole 2013-14 Thing

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 14:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts after a call during their game against the Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena on December 14, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Kobe's numbers aren't pretty, and they're far from Black Mamba-ish.

Through six games, he's averaging 13.8 points on 42.5 percent shooting, both of which would be his lowest totals since 1996-97, when he was a rookie. His 11.6 PER reads as awful as it actually is, and it's a career low by far.

But we're talking about six games in the context of an entire season. Six. That's nothing. We have nowhere near enough data or footage to draw any meaningful conclusions.

You want real analysis? Here it comes: Kobe is playing basketball.

That's the extent of what we know right now, and it works both ways.

Those who lampoon him for coughing up the rock 5.7 times a night: It's only been six games. Positive Penelopes all aflutter with how he's navigating the court, backpedaling on defense and hitting the floor only to pop right back up: It's only been six games.

Let's see if his turnover woes last the entire season. Let's see if he can maintain his mobility for the rest of the year. Or at least more than six games.

LeBron James could've began his season registering six straight triple-doubles. Would we be telling Oscar Robertson, the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season, to move over if he did? Of course not. Small sample sizes don't work that way.

Similar logic applies here.

Kobe could've come out shooting like it was 2005-06, and that would mean nothing through six games. He could've dropped 30-plus points every contest, and that wouldn't mean a damn thing through six games.

The numbers he's putting forth now, through six games, don't mean a damn thing.

 

Remember the Achilles

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 12: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks with head athletic trainer Gary Vitti after getting injured during a game against the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on April 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE T
Noah Graham/Getty Images

I've got a secret for you.

Kobe has only just returned from a ruptured Achilles. Spread the word.

Vino was never going to magically recover or return to form. He didn't play for eight months. That's two-thirds of a year. 

That's a long time.

It wasn't turf toe Kobe was suffering from. Or a bruised pinky finger. He wasn't sidelined by a brain freeze from wolfing down too many Eskimo Pies. This was an Achilles injury, a career-threatening ailment that forced Kobe to consider retirement.

This ordeal could've ended his career. Plain and simple. 

But it didn't. For now, that's what matters most.

 

Playing out of Position

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 16: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers passes the ball downlow against the Atlanta Hawks on December 16, 2013 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

"Kobe will play some point guard because of Farmar's status and Steve Nash's status," said Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni before Vino's return, according to the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus.

Those were the words that changed everything.

Kobe isn't a point guard, though he has on occasion played like one. Last season he tied a career high in assists with six a night, because the Lakers needed him to be a playmaker. 

Never has he been their primary playmaker the way he is now. 

Three actual point guards are on the roster, all of whom are injured. Steve Nash? Back problems. Jordan Farmar? Hamstring issues. Steve Blake? Betrayed by his elbow.

Which leaves Kobe, and Kobe alone.

Playing point should, theoretically, be easier on his legs. Point men don't need to be as explosive or athletic as swingmen. But Kobe spent nearly two decades scoring first, scoring second and distributing third. The Lakers won 70 percent of their games last season (28-12) when he dropped at least six assists (his season average) because it threw defenses for a whirl, and it still can. 

This time it's different, throwing Kobe himself for a loop. He's adjusting to a new role in a completely different body. Make no mistake, that's what it is. This isn't an easy transition, and Kobe is different as a result.

His current assist percentage (35.4) would already be a career high. Meanwhile, he's putting up 14.8 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes one season after averaging over 19.

This position Kobe's playing isn't the same. We wouldn't judge a second baseman turned outfielder based on six games, so we cannot render season-defining verdicts on a volume shooter turned facilitator this soon, either.

Adjusting to his new role, temporary or not, takes time—more than six, 10 or even 25 games.

 

Familiar Spaces, But Brand-New Faces

Nov 29, 2013; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Wesley Johnson (11) and small forward Nick Young (0) celebrate during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Lakers won 106-102. Mandatory Credit
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Think about how different Los Angeles' roster is compared to last season.

Almost everyone Kobe is playing with, he's never battled alongside before. You can even make the case that Pau Gasol and Blake are the only teammates he has an actual rapport with.

Jordan Hill and Nash haven't had enough time next to Kobe, and Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry, Shawne Williams and Chris Kaman are all brand-new. Most of them aren't seldom-used benchwarmers, either.

Who are you guys again?
Who are you guys again?Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kaman is moved in and out of the rotation, but Young, Johnson, Henry and Williams are all logging at least 19 minutes per game. And Farmar, who figured prominently into the rotation until he went down, hasn't played with Kobe since 2009-10.

Chemistry is important. Absence of familiarity and cohesion destroyed the Lakers last season, when Kobe was actually healthy. What are we to expect when he missed 19 games, including training camp, and returned to a team ravaged by injuries and headlined by foreign faces? 

Pretty much everything we've seen: the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

 

Adjusting Expectations

Dec 16, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) tries to keep the ball in bounds in the first quarter against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever you think of Kobe's current performance, and however good you think he'll be, expect less. 

Expecting more only sets yourself, and Kobe, up for disappointment. There's no way of knowing if he can live up to the ridiculous standard his entire career has set. There's no way of knowing if he'll regress into a shell of his former self, or if he'll pick up where he left off last season.

But we do know that post-Achilles-injury versions of players are liable to disappoint. 

Take Elton Brand, who ruptured his Achilles in the summer of 2007. He was never the same player.

Elton Brand Before and After Achilles Injury
WhenMPGPTSREBSBLKSFG%PER
Before38.320.310.22.150.522.7
Through 2012-1329.312.17.11.348.616.8
Via Basketball-Reference

Now, Kobe isn't Brand. Or Chauncey Billups. Or anyone other than himself. That's part of the thrill.

Players his age (35) shouldn't be chasing stardom after a setback like this. Athletes much younger than himself, like Brand, who was 28 when he suffered a similar injury, have been unable to fully recover. We must be prepared for Kobe to finally become another statistic, another victim to age and physical limits.

We must also ready ourselves for just the opposite too, because again, this is Kobe, who became the oldest player in NBA history to average at least 25 points, five rebounds and six assists for an entire season only last year.

Expect Kobe to become another Brand, someone who could not outrun time or sinister injuries. But hope against hope (and common logic) that he's still Kobe, trenchant as ever when it comes what's normal.

 

Riding This Out

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 10: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the performance of the National Anthem before facing the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center on December 10, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Patience is a four-letter word in Los Angeles. Requesting it will land you a one-way ticket out of town and gaggles of middle fingers in your face. The Lakers, no matter their state, are and will always be about now.

But for once, there needs to be an exception. And Kobe needs to be that exception.

"I’m doing more work now than I ever have," Bryant explained, according to Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding. "The discipline, the will, has to be there more now than it ever was."

Wait and see what that will translates into. Hold all evaluations until the proper time. When exactly that is, we don't know. But it's not now, six games into his return. Good, bad or spectacular performances in tow, it won't be 10 or 20 games into his season, either.

This, however meaningful or pointless it may be, is a process.

"The love for the game is always there," Kobe said, via Ding. "Now, because of the injury and because the finish line is a lot closer, you have a greater appreciation for the entire body of work—and trying to finish it out on your terms."

Kobe is having fun right now, discovering new levels of appreciation for the game he loves. Re-acquainting himself with the city and team he has come to own.

Judgment day comes later.

 

*All stats come courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

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