Will Kobe Bryant's Return Make Lakers Western Conference Dark Horse?

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Will Kobe Bryant's Return Make Lakers Western Conference Dark Horse?
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In December of 2013, Kobe Bryant's left knee suffered a fracture to the lateral tibial plateau, dealing a further blow to a superstar who missed the first 19 games of the season while recovering from a torn Achilles.

By March, the Los Angeles Lakers had decided there would be no return for the Black Mamba during the 2013-14 campaign.

"Obviously this has been a frustrating and disappointing season, but I appreciate all the support I've received from the Lakers and the fans and look forward to being back and ready for the start of training camp," Bryant said in a statement at the time.

In total, Bryant played in just six games last season.

Keeping him healthy and fresh will be one of new head coach Byron Scott's top priorities. Without Bryant in top form, the Lakers are doomed to repeat recent history and again fade from relevance in a crowded Western Conference.

As the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus noted in April, "If age is going to have an effect on Bryant's game, the dip may come in minutes on the floor—30 a night may be a more realistic mark."

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That's a far cry from the 38.6 minutes Bryant averaged in 2012-13, when he tallied an impressive 27.3 points and six assists per contest. Pincus appropriately adds, "Persuading Bryant to stay on the bench for 18 minutes may be a difficult job."

All the more difficult if the playoffs remain within reach for a team that missed the postseason for the first time since 2004-05.

Regardless of his playing time, expect Bryant to make a significant impact this season. The almost-36-year-old remains the club's best all-around scorer and playmaker, a still potent weapon now looking to prove himself in the wake of injury and aging, which threaten to derail the twilight of his iconic career.

"I definitely think he has stuff left in his tank," former Lakers head coach Mike Brown told The Herd with Colin Cowherd via Lakers Nation's Nathan Kim. "He’s not going to be the Kobe of 10 years ago because the explosiveness is not there, but he’s very intelligent, one thing he was always really good at is angles and footwork and the ability to create space."

Brown added, "I think he is still capable of playing at a pretty high level."

Bryant's inevitable resurgence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the Lakers' return to glory.

The rest of this rotation will need to do its part, as well.

After a frustrating 27-55 season, there's finally some optimism in Los Angeles. Per ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin, recently acquired Carlos Boozer said in July, "I think that we can take advantage of it with our lineup that we have. We have a lot of athleticism, a lot of young guys, and we also got Kobe coming back, which I'm excited to be playing with him."

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Despite losing big man Pau Gasol to the Chicago Bulls via free agency this summer, general manager Mitch Kupchak quickly steadied the ship with a winning bid for Boozer, who was amnestied by those same Bulls.

Though Boozer isn't quite as big as Gasol (and perhaps less inclined to defend), he remains a consistent midrange shooter and productive rebounder.

Los Angeles further bolstered its front line by taking Julius Randle with the seventh overall pick in this summer's draft. It's unclear how much playing time the Kentucky product will earn right away, but he certainly adds some depth and upside to the power forward position.

So too does free-agent acquisition Ed Davis, who played limited minutes with the Memphis Grizzlies these last two seasons after showing serious flashes earlier in his career with the Toronto Raptors.

Add it all up, and Los Angeles' platoon of big men should capably replace Gasol.

The X-factor in the equation may be center Jordan Hill, who averaged 9.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in just 20.8 minutes per game last season. With additional minutes in the season's final weeks, Hill upped his numbers to 16.6 points and 10.1 rebounds in April. He twice tallied 28 points in March.

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The organization rewarded Hill's demonstrated upside with a lucrative two-year pact and—presumably—the opportunity to be a starting center this season.

Should Hill continue at the pace he established in March and April, the Lakers could find themselves with a deceptively effective arsenal of big men. That would go a long way toward alleviating the pressure on Bryant.

Two other Lakers will figure heavily into the club's plans this year: Nick Young and Jeremy Lin.

Young made the most of L.A.'s misfortunes last season, averaging a career-high 17.9 points per game on 43.5 percent shooting. Though he's a fairly one-dimensional scorer, Young could develop into a prolific sidekick for Bryant.

Meanwhile, Lin was acquired via trade from the Houston Rockets, renewing the 25-year-old's opportunity to rediscover the heroics he displayed during his breakout performance with the New York Knicks. In truth, the Lakers don't need Lin to be amazing—they just need some depth and stability at an otherwise vulnerable point guard position.

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Which brings us to the final piece of the puzzle.

Steve Nash is entering what's likely his final NBA season. After playing in just 65 games through his first two seasons with the franchise, getting anything out of Nash would be a good start. With Lin ostensibly backing him up, Scott can manage Nash's minutes carefully, hopefully keeping him fresh enough to leave his mark in the playoffs.

About those playoffs.

While the Lakers almost certainly have what it takes to improve upon an injury-riddled 2013-14 campaign, few consider them legitimate threats to contend for a title in 2014-15. How quickly we forget the possibilities inherent in any Kobe-led endeavor.

Los Angeles' path to the Finals may be an improbable one, but a little defense and chemistry could go a long way. With Bryant's leadership rallying these troops, the real question is whether Scott can improve a defense that gave up 109.2 points per contest last season (a figure that ranked 29th league-wide).

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According to the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus, Scott told The Dan Patrick Show, "I expect us to compete every night. [The Lakers are] going to play a tough, physical brand of basketball, and we're going to play defense."

It's an appropriate talking point, but L.A.'s unlikely title hopes ultimately depend on Scott's ability to turn those aspirations into a reality. The points won't be hard to come by for this team, but getting stops may be another story.

It's the kind of evolution that will have more to do with culture than personnel. To that end, Bryant's presence may be every bit as pivotal as Scott's. 

There should be no shortage of accountability this season. With Bryant's larger-than-life presence eliciting improved effort from teammates, these Lakers were built to overachieve—to surprise an NBA that wasn't looking their way for the first time in a long time.

They may not be contenders in any conventional sense, but they're almost certainly better than we think.

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