Kobe Bryant is back.
The Mamba will suit up Sunday, Dec. 8 against the Toronto Raptors, leaving Los Angeles Lakers fans dreaming of something like an 81-point outing. But before proclaiming immediate greatness, let's instead hold our horses a bit, even after Bryant turned to Facebook to announce his official return:
No longer will Kobe's No. 24 jersey be hanging...in the clouds? Instead, it'll rest on his torso as he steps onto the court for the first time since tearing his Achilles at the end of the 2012-13 campaign. As ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin writes about the video, "Eventually the jersey is torn down the middle of the chest, presumably representing the Achilles tear that Bryant suffered, before being repaired with a blinding beam of sunlight."
Now that he's back, we no longer have to look back on the past, thinking about the torn jersey/torn Achilles.
We can finally get out our crystal balls and peek into the future, attempting to figure out exactly what we can expect in 2013-14.
Lakers Won't Worry About Limiting Involvement, Just Minutes
Kobe has shown the ability over the course of his career to be effective despite not being 100 percent, so the Lakers don't really have to be concerned about his effectiveness returning to the court.
How many times have we seen him play through nagging injuries? It takes a serious malady—something like a torn Achilles—in order for him to remain on the sideline. Broken fingers, contusions, illnesses and any other nicks, bumps or bruises he suffers through just don't keep him out of the lineup.
Hell, remember this?
How many players have the mental fortitude to rupture an Achilles tendon and then calmly knock down two freebies before heading to the locker room? It's tough to think of anyone but Kobe.
Health is a concern. Play should not be. And the Lakers have to act accordingly.
If that involves shooting from the perimeter and limiting the wear and tear that his aging frame endures, fine. If he's going to crash into the teeth of the defense and mimic a healthy Derrick Rose on a regular basis, that's perfectly alright, as long as he's comfortable doing it. If he wants to go back to running isolation sets and shooting shots so difficult only he, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant can make them, whatever.
All of that isn't problematic.
It's the minutes that have to be limited, as Kobe will inevitably try to spend as much time on the court as possible. An Achilles injury isn't easy to recover from, and the Lakers have to proceed with caution. As tough as it's been to survive without the All-Star shooting guard, it would be even more difficult to lose him again.
Mike D'Antoni must be conscious of Kobe whenever he's on the court. Not because his playing style must be monitored, but because he has to take charge and force the Mamba to slither over to the bench with more frequency than he'd like.
So, how many minutes does that actually mean?
During the last two seasons, Kobe has played at least 38.5 minutes per game, and there's no way that D'Antoni is going to be that reckless during the future Hall of Famer's return from an Achilles injury. His days of racking up outings without sitting on the bench are well behind him.
Not counting the first two seasons of his career, as he was still attempting to carve out a spot in the lineup, Kobe has always averaged at least 33.9 minutes per game. But given the fact that the rehab process took longer than we initially thought, that should prove to be the upper ceiling, even if it came in 2010-11 when he was plagued by a constant stream of nagging injuries.
Due to the inherently positive feel of round numbers, let's estimate that Kobe plays 30 minutes per game. He won't work his way up to that number, though. Instead, he'll bounce right around it from the first time he suits up until the last.
It's tough to guess what Kobe's exact role in the offense will be when he returns.
Pau Gasol should still be one of the hubs, operating off the elbow and touching the ball on the majority of the possessions. Even when he's struggling with his shot, the Spanish 7-footer is a valuable offensive player because he's so unique.
How many players in the league can work from that elbow and A) drain mid-range jumpers, B) attack the basket with a dizzying array of post moves or a simple jump-hook and C) facilitate effectively on either the strong or the weak side? The answer is not many, but Gasol is one of them.
The difference between this year and last season is that the big man is ready to make a big contribution to the offense, and he doesn't have to wait until the end of the year to make his mark felt. Because of that, the onus is less on Kobe to serve as a primary facilitator.
Remember, there was a stretch of games during the 2012-13 season when D'Antoni asked the Mamba to become a de facto point guard, and he responded with an assist-laden set of performances that left no doubt he could be an elite 1-guard if he so desired.
But that won't be happening in 2013-14.
Things were different when the Lakers boasted another elite offensive option (Voldemort the center who shall not be named), but now who is he going to pass to? Are we ready to live in a world where Kobe is supposed to pass up opportunities so that he can distribute the ball out to Jordan Hill, Xavier Henry, Shawne Williams and Nick Young?
That gunner mentality will be both present and necessary throughout his return from the Achilles injury, even if he finds it a little more difficult to create separation for his trademark tough jumpers.
Since Y2K, Kobe has never averaged fewer than 24 points per game, and that's an over-optimistic target for the Mamba.
24 points in 30 minutes per game is 28.8 points per 36 minutes, and that's far too high. It would be the most he's averaged since 2005-06, and the second-highest mark of his career. In fact, take a look at how his points per 36 minutes have trended over the years:
Given the downward trend and the devastating nature of an Achilles injury, it's more likely that we'll see Kobe score around 24 points per 36 minutes, which puts his per-game average right at 20 points. Would any realistic fan seriously be disappointed by seeing the Mamba put up 20 per night while only spending 30 minutes on the court during the average contest?
If you're expecting more than that, cut the dude some slack. He's only human.
Despite what the superhuman nature of basketball's premier stars might lead you to believe, recoveries are difficult. Look at how long Rose took to first return to the court and then how long he played at even a mediocre level before another injury struck. Think about how Kobe was originally supposed to be back at the start of the season or after just a handful of games, at least in our minds.
Expectations have to be realistic.
Speaking of realism, don't think that you're going to see the Mamba shooting as efficiently as he did last year, either. A 43.0 field-goal percentage (the mark in 2011-12) is much more likely than last year's 46.3 for a couple of reasons. Not only is Kobe going to struggle creating as much separation as he's typically enjoyed, but he's also reverting back to being option No. 1, 2 and 3, rather than getting to serve as a facilitator and scorer simultaneously.
The Lakers need him to shoot the ball, even if it comes at the expense of last year's efficiency.
So, what about assists?
Let's use the same exercise that was employed for scoring by taking a gander at his assists per 36 minutes over the years:
The number has fluctuated over the last few seasons, and 2012-13 stands out as a clear outlier, one influenced tremendously by the strange roster the Lakers employed, as well as the constant flux in the lineup and on the bench.
As skilled as Kobe is, there's no reason to think he'll record any fewer assists per 36 minutes than he's put up over the last half-decade or so. 4.75 seems like a reasonable number, as he's bounced between 5.0 and 4.5 from 2006-07 to 2011-12.
4.75 assists per 36 minutes equates to 4.0 per game, given the 30-minute estimate we're using.
To recap, reasonable expectations for the Mamba would include 20 points and four dimes per game while shooting right around 43 percent from the field. How's that for a solid offensive return from a ruptured Achilles?
Unfortunately, the positives stop there.
It's been a long time since Vino was a deserving member of the All-Defensive team.
Wine might age well, but apparently Kobe's defense doesn't. Although he can still lock down a guard whenever he so chooses—just ask Brandon Jennings if you don't believe me—that's happening with far less frequency.
And as for his help defense, it may as well not exist.
Throughout the 2012-13 season, Kobe was prone to watching the ball instead of shifting his feet to help out one of his overmatched teammates. He was embarrassingly slow back in transition on too many occasions to count, and it often looked like he was just saving energy for the next time he had a chance to score points.
This play is just ingrained in my mind (h/t Grantland's Zach Lowe), although there are plenty others that look just like it:
In the article from which that video came, Lowe had the following to say about Kobe's defense, or lack thereof:
If Bryant makes first or second-team All-Defense again this season, I’m officially ignoring this honor indefinitely when it comes to assessing a player’s status and career accomplishments. There will be no more “Player X has seven first-team All-Defense appearances” in this space as a way of justifying a man’s place in the NBA hierarchy.
The whole piece, a rather scathing look at the Lakers' overall defensive woes, is pretty damning, and that was while Kobe was healthy.
Basketball-Reference shows that L.A. allowed an additional 4.3 points per 100 possessions when Kobe was on the court, and that's no fluke. He's no longer a good defensive player, with the exception of those few nights where he makes a concerted effort to buckle down.
And those are going to be even fewer and further between in 2013-14.
Again, returning from an Achilles injury is tough. Writing for Basketball Prospectus, Kevin Pelton did a breakdown of success in returns from the injury after Chauncey Billups ruptured his Achilles in February of 2012. The findings are no less relevant today, although we can add Mr. Big Shot to the list of players who returned but were less effective:
Of the 11 players I found with ruptured Achilles tendons in the last two decades, four (including Isiah Thomas, who retired at 32 following a ruptured Achilles) never played in the NBA again. Just four returned to play at the same level by my estimation, though Dominique Wilkins' successful comeback is notable. Wilkins made two All-Star teams after a ruptured Achilles suffered at 32 and played until age 39.
'Nique, DeSagana Diop, Dan Dickau and Jonas Jerebko are the four who returned to the same level, and that level was only impressive in the case of the former Atlanta Hawks superstar. He was also the oldest, checking in at 32 when he suffered the traumatic injury.
It's impressive enough that Kobe is playing again. It's even more impressive that I feel confident predicting he'll average 20 and four. It would be too much to predict a defensive improvement, or even a return to his 2005-06 point-preventing form.
Throughout this return campaign, the Mamba will be a one-way player. There will be occasional flashes of defensive excellence, but they'll be exactly that: flashes.
The combined package is impressive in a vacuum. Through the first few weeks of the NBA season, only 10 players in the league were averaging 20 points and four dimes per game, so the Lakers will be able to live with his defensive deficiencies.
Will Kobe deserve to make an All-Star quad this year? Nope. Will he make the All-NBA team? Probably not, given the time he missed and his declining numbers. Also, Kobe has even admitted, via ESPN's McMenamin that, "Getting your sea legs, it takes some time to do that."
He'll be a valuable player nonetheless and a spark for a Lakers team that could certainly use one at this point in the season.
For a 35-year-old coming off a ruptured Achilles, that should be more than enough.