A season that promised mediocrity following Dwight Howard's departure has quickly become empty. Injuries have stripped the Lakers of depth and left them tied for the Western Conference's second-worst record.
With less than 50 games into the season, the Lakers are done. The playoffs aren't happening; miracles aren't happening. But that doesn't mean their season is over—because it's not. It has yet to begin in some ways.
There may not be a championship left to play for, but there are free agents to preemptively woo.
Will He Come Back?
Bryant has appeared in just six games all season, and after a Jan. 28 checkup, the Lakers announced he would be reevaluated in "approximately three weeks." That's hardly encouraging since it likely means Bryant's status won't be definitively determined until after the All-Star break.
And why even play at that point? Best-case scenario, Bryant adds a few victories to Los Angeles' win column, damaging the value of its 2014 first-round draft pick. Worst-case scenario, he re-injures himself, making the $48.5 million Los Angeles spent on him through 2015-16 seem like an even more reckless investment.
Isn't he better off sitting out the season and starting over next year, for both his and the team's sake?
Of course not.
First off, anyone who understands how fiercely competitive Bryant is will know he won't sit out just because. He's pushed the boundaries of physical limits for nearly two decades and isn't going to stop now.
"You know Kobe’s scheming to come back," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said leading into a Christmas Day matchup against the Miami Heat, per NBA.com's Sekou Smith, "and getting ready and doing everything he can to push the envelope and be ready."
Bryant is going to come back. As sure as Los Angeles is to miss the postseason for the first time since 2005, Bryant is going to come back. It doesn't matter if there are 35 games left to play or five—he's going to come back.
And the Lakers need him to come back.
Buying into the notion that they need to increase their lottery odds is foolish. The Lakers will be bad enough to be in that top-seven conversation with or without Bryant. If the front office is that hell-bent on tanking (they're not), dumping Pau Gasol is always an option.
But the Lakers aren't concerned about the draft. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding reminds us, the Lakers care more about rebuilding through free agency than they do the draft:
Same as they did in preparation for 2007 free agency on the chance that James wouldn’t be staying in Cleveland, the Lakers have structured their payroll to be ready whenever James is next a free agent. They’re ready if he opts out this summer (though it’s unimaginable he would leave if Miami won again and also unimaginable he would leave and evoke memories of Cleveland by deserting Miami if the Heat lost), if he opts out next summer (possibly) or when his contract expires in 2016 (valid).
But this is not all about LeBron; this is about free agency, which has always been the Lakers’ plan because they rightly believe—Dwight Howard’s provincial view notwithstanding—that they are an attractive destination with a very warm and large spotlight.
Like Ding says, Los Angeles will always be an appealing destination, if not for the 16 championship banners dangling from the rafters, then for the palm trees and beaches. Even at its worst, Los Angeles, a gargantuan-sized market that can do wonders for a player's exposure, is a pretty good option.
Bryant's return has the opportunity to make it even better.
What question do you think prospective targets are going to ask themselves before considering a move to Los Angeles? They'll go through the usual motions of "Can I win here?" and "Are the burritos filling enough?" (they are) before making a decision.
Topping any list of questions, and somehow related to any other inquiries, will be Bryant's status.
Can he still play? Can I still win with him? Does he have anything left?
No one knows much about Bryant's future right now. All 2014 and 2015 free agents have to look at is six games. That's it. Six games is nothing. Factor in his latest injury, and it's less than nothing. Nothing valuable can be gleaned from six games.
All we know after those six games is Bryant had no qualms about approaching the 30-minute mark right out of the gate, he eclipsed 20 points three times and he was turnover-prone. That's it. And that's still nothing.
Returning this season could undoubtedly harm his stock, but it really cannot drop much lower than it is now. Being 35 and recovering from two major injuries, Bryant is already in a position of weakness. He doesn't have anything to lose by returning whenever he can.
But he and the Lakers do have everything to gain.
Say he returns and plays well. Not 2007-08 MVP-campaign well, or even 2012-13 oh-my-god-is-he-actually-playing-like-this well. Just well; just good.
Think of what that does for Los Angeles' free-agency sales pitches this summer and next.
Carmelo Anthony is more likely to spurn the New York Knicks for the Lakers if he's joining a healthy version of Bryant. Kevin Love is more likely to flee the Minnesota Timberwolves for Los Angeles in 2015—or attempt to force a trade sooner—if he knows he won't be forced to endure another year of Minnesotan disappointment while Bryant trudges through his final days as an old, decrepit and incapable body.
A New Purpose
Try as some might to ignore it, Bryant is still a big part of the Lakers' future. Although it's unlikely he plays beyond the life of his current contract, he can have an impact that extends well beyond 2015-16.
That next star, the one we know the Lakers covet, will arrive a lot sooner if Bryant is still a viable sidekick.
Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein of ESPN wrote that Howard deserted Los Angeles for the Houston Rockets because he was worried about the transfer of power. Bryant was angling toward another extension, which meant at least another three years of playing alongside an ego that rivaled his own.
For most superstars, that would be a problem. For Howard, it wasn't an option. While Bryant was injured, Howard spent all of 2013-14 witnessing firsthand how much his then-teammate had left. It was the longevity of Bryant's tenure that drove him off.
Whatever superstar the Lakers seek this time can have the best of both worlds if Bryant can still play. His contract runs out in 2016, at which point the keys will be handed over. Until then, be it for next season and the one after, or just the one after (Love), he can welcome the opportunity to play with a healthy Bryant.
That's important. Incredibly important. Bryant accounts for $23.5 million of Los Angeles' salary obligations in 2014-15 and $25 million in 2015-16, severely hamstringing the Lakers' ability to surround him with talented role players—especially if they plan to add another star (they do).
Is Kobe Bryant's return this season important to the Lakers' future free-agency goals?
It has to be this way. The Lakers won't rebuild through the draft, and since Bryant is such a big part of their immediate financial outlook, he must remain a huge part of their sales pitches moving forward.
"That's a 100 percent certainty,'' one general manager told ESPN's Chris Broussard (subscription required) of Love joining the Lakers in 2015.
Nothing that far in advance is an absolute certainty. But Kobe and the Lakers can make Love's or another star's arrival that much more likely by finishing this season strong, giving them something to play for in a year presumed lost.
*Salary information via ShamSports.