Will Kobe Bryant Return to L.A. Lakers Team Already out of Playoff Contention?

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistDecember 24, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 16:  Jodie Meeks #20, Kobe Bryant #24, and Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers watch in the first half during the game 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

With Kobe Bryant out six weeks with a left knee injury, will the Los Angeles Lakers fall too far out of playoff contention before he returns?

It’s not the best of times for the Purple and Gold. They were shelled by the Phoenix Suns117-90 on Monday night and shelled by the Golden State Warriors on Saturday, 102-83

With their last two losses, the Lakers are 1.5 games behind the eighth-place Warriors in the Western Conference and 4.5 games behind the fifth-place Suns.

The guy who’s supposed to be the Lakers’ second option after Bryant, is also having a rough stretch. Pau Gasol missed Saturday night’s loss with an upper respiratory infection. On Monday he put forth a lackluster effort, first outplayed by the Suns’ Miles Plumlee, then head-butted by him in the third quarter. Gasol didn’t return to the game.

Things are beginning to look bleak. Mike Bresnahan for the Los Angeles Times sums it up succinctly:

Pretty soon, the Lakers can start forgetting about the postseason if this keeps up. There are two-game trips, and then there are wastes of time, the Lakers losing to Phoenix and Golden State by a combined 46 points in a 48-hour span.

As Bresnahan added, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t want to hear about it.

Guys, I mean, it's like, OK, we lost two road games. It takes some adjusting. We've got to get somebody healthy. We'll be back. We're not going anywhere. We're going to fight and we're going to try and stay above .500. We've got a nice homestand coming up and if anybody hangs their head, they don't need to be on our bandwagon.

Lakers’ fans might not want to relive Monday night’s misery but just in case, here are the “highlights.”

If you’re waiting for a punchline for all of this, the Lakers get to play the Miami Heat in two days—on Christmas Day to be exact.

The Grinch came early this year—as in really early. Bryant ruptured his Achilles before the Lakers even made last year’s playoffs. His team was shut out in the first round, losing to the San Antonio Spurs. After nearly eight months of post-surgery rehab, Bryant returned for all of six games before getting hurt again.

There’s a number of different players on the roster this season, but the big picture seems eerily similar. Bryant’s not alone on the sideline—Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar are also out of action. The result has been painfully obvious. Ad-hoc solutions simply won’t cut it in a Western Conference that is loaded with point-guard talent.

Xavier Henry started at the point on Saturday and at least managed to get to the line, making nine out of 10 free throws. He wasn’t as accurate from the field, making only two of nine.

He wasn’t much of a playmaker either with only two assists compared with the Warriors’ Steph Curry who had 10. The Lakers also had 24 turnovers. The Lakers' newest point guard, Kendall Marshall, who was called up from the D-League, played less than six minutes of garbage time.

The Lakers used the same starting backcourt on Monday with Henry and Nick Young. This time, Henry failed to add a single assist to his stat line, while Young had just one. Their counterparts for the Suns, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, had seven assists each.

You really can’t blame Henry for not being an effective point guard—he’s playing out of position and doing the best he can. Before inheriting the slot, Henry was part of a potent Lakers bench as a shooting guard. Guys like Henry, Young and Wesley Johnson have been pleasant surprises for the Lakers this year—low-cost options who have provided scoring, youth and athleticism.

It’s doubtful Christmas Day will be a joyous occasion for the Lakers—LeBron James and the Miami Heat are just too good. If there’s to be any turning point at all, it will be in the return of Farmar to the lineup after a month-long absence with a hamstring injury. Farmar was an integral part of Mike D’Antoni’s bench squad before his injury, he’ll now be part of the starting lineup.

Bryant, however, will still be at least a month away from returning.

The Lakers have a relatively easy schedule after Christmas Day, facing the Utah Jazz on the road, then returning to Staples to host the Philadelphia 76ers, the Milwaukee Bucks and, again, the Jazz.

These four games give Los Angeles a strong chance to bolster its dwindling playoff chances. Or, if worst comes to worst, this could mean the Lakers are suddenly keeping company with the Jazz at the bottom of the Western Conference.

Even with a few wins under their belt, the Lakers are still just buying time. They’ll be on the road for most of January, and by the time Bryant returns, it could be all over except for the shouting.

The optimists may say that the season’s still young. It won’t, however, still be young when Bryant returns.