There is no conceivable scenario in which an able-bodied Bryant won't play again this season. When he's ready, despite many wishes to the contrary, he's going to play.
The only thing I can afford to consider is getting better, getting stronger. I can't allow myself to think any other way. I can only think about the next step. To do anything else becomes distracting if you allow yourself, if you give yourself wiggle room to not push yourself as hard as you possibly can. To think about sitting out and this, that and the other, your motivation is all wrong. I refuse to think that way.
Relief would typically be washing over fans at the sound of Bryant once again refusing to yield.
Bryant operates on one setting and one setting only: go. If he plays, he will go hard, without regard for record or his team's direction.
At 35 and nearly two decades into his NBA career, he doesn't understand how to play, how to fight any other way, a stubborn mindset that will come as refreshing to a Lakers fanbase being subjected to losing efforts and generally hapless basketball daily.
With him, the Lakers are pretty much the Lakers again, far from whole but recognizable, potentially making way for notional expectations that have no real chance of coming true.
One thing Bryant won't give the Lakers—aside from a superstar who doesn't speak "tank"—is an identity.
In some ways, he is the Lakers. His face is associated with shooting and scoring and shooting and winning and shooting and championships. Put him back in purple and gold, and things feel right, no matter what personnel is placed around him.
But that's their off-court identity. Bryant won't have enough of an impact to define this team. And even if he could, it's unfair to ask him to when the risk for aggravating one of his injuries is higher than it's ever been.
For the first time—since December, that is—Bryant is returning to a team he doesn't know. An aggregate consisting of mostly beatnik talent, scrapped together on the fly and cheap. Not even the disappointing Lakers of 2004-05 compare to Los Angeles' current list of free spirits playing for their next contract.
If I were to ask who the Lakers are right now, "Nick Young's ball rack," "Pau Gasol's house of aggravation" and "Kendall Marshall's gold-and-purple-plated Lamborghini" would all be acceptable answers. And why? Because more than halfway through the season, Los Angeles doesn't have an identity.
To this point, the Lakers have been mostly nondescript. Just along for the ride. The closest thing to an identity they have is pace; they rank third in possessions used per 48 minutes with 97.1.
And pace means little without substance. While they're running and gunning, they're also shooting blanks, caroming shot after shot off the rim and pitting themselves in the bottom 10 of offensive efficiency.
Pace is all they have.
When Bryant gets back, they won't have it anymore.
Age and regression won't allow him to play head coach Mike D'Antoni's brand of basketball. More pointedly, Bryant won't want to, because he's not accustomed to it.
Since Bryant entered the league in 1996, the Lakers offense has surpassed 95 possessions per 48 minutes once. (Clears throat.) Once. In almost two decades.
Bryant's natural offensive instincts go against everything the Lakers are doing now. Pace is the only iota of distinction they have, and he doesn't—he can't—abide by it, increasing the likelihood Los Angeles' "savior" disrupts what little chemistry it has manufactured.
One of Many
Bryant is one piece to an overly complex, injury-riddled and mangled puzzle.
Knowing he won't come back to average 30-plus minutes a night increases the importance of depth, something the Lakers don't have.
Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry are still nursing injuries, and per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding, Steve Nash can't even function at home without hurting himself:
A recuperating Bryant, surging Gasol, uninhibited Young and crafty Marshall don't count as depth. Together, they don't even make up a starting five.
D'Antoni will still be turning dregs into consistent contributors, using what little firepower he has to open the game, saving only Young for the league's 28th-ranked bench. Where's the depth?
Off gallivanting with "hope," out of Los Angeles' reach.
If we were to assume the best, if we were to guarantee Bryant wouldn't slow Los Angeles' offensive pace and would return to peak form, where would that leave the Lakers?
Bryant isn't returning to save the day. There's nothing for him to save. Best-case scenarios had his Lakers feigning playoff contention, and at 16-29, 8.5 games back of a playoff spot and losers of 16 of their last 20 since Bryant went down, all hope of four-flushing anything is out of the question.
The Western Conference is swift and unforgiving. Fall behind, even early, and you're done.
The Lakers are done.
At their core, the Lakers are bad. Plain and simple. Bryant's re-ermergence shouldn't create hope. Fans should be wise enough to understand their Lakers aren't good. That Bryant is only back because he's Bryant.
That the only thing worth playing for is this summer and beyond.
Tanking isn't an option for this team, and not just because Bryant would sooner hold general manager Mitch Kupchak at knifepoint than he would allow the Lakers to waste their season. But the Lakers aren't tanking. Their struggles are deep-seated in their cosmetic makeup—not the result of deliberate attempts to lose—something else Bryant will never come to accept.
"It's not about 'giving good effort,'" Bryant said, per the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan. "It's about winning championships."
Reiterating his desire to win, Bryant will return to an uncertain present and future, with an opportunity to set the tone for what's next, when Los Angeles will hope he's enough to sell prospective free agents on what it's doing. All the while, he'll spout off win-now blurbs, aimed at selling himself, more so than fans, on a reality that no longer exists.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
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