Kobe Bryant has returned to a lineup that was utilizing chemistry and playing smart basketball within the confines of head coach Mike D'Antoni's system to hover around .500 during the 19 games that the Black Mamba missed.
Now that he's back in the lineup, the Lakers have lost back-to-back contests and need to address whether or not they will remain fringe contenders, drop down to a lottery-bound squad or make the leap to a bona fide Western Conference powerhouse.
Let's take a look at what Bryant has been saying about his team's performance while he was away from the hardwood, his coach's reaction to that statement, as well as some of the latest information on Pau Gasol's impending free agency and contract situation.
Bryant Takes Jab at Teammates, D'Antoni Defends Them
Kobe wasn't exactly glowing in his assessment of L.A.'s performance without him in the lineup.
As per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin, the Mamba told reporters on Monday, Dec. 9, "It's not like we were gangbusters before," in reference to the team's 10-9 record.
It was a snide remark that came shortly after Bryant's 2013-14 season debut against the Toronto Raptors. The future Hall of Famer showed an immense amount of rust in the 106-94 loss, scoring just nine points on 2-of-9 shooting and turning the ball over eight times.
While Bryant was critical of his first outing—which came nearly eight months after he tore his Achilles at the tail end of the 2012-13 campaign—it wasn't exactly wise to make these disparaging observations.
D'Antoni was quick to refute his star player's statement during a shootaround on Tuesday, Dec. 10, as per McMenamin:
I have to disagree with that [Bryant's comment]. We were 6-2 in the last eight [games before Bryant's return] and I thought we played extremely well, winning three [in a row] on the road. ... So, that's not quite right. I'm really proud of what the guys did.
The Lakers were marred with issues outside of Bryant's absence. Starting point guard Steve Nash only participated in six relatively ineffective contests before succumbing to injury; veteran power forward Gasol is struggling to put up better numbers than last year's dismal showing; and the team as a whole needs to improve on defense, especially in the paint.
Regardless, the Lakers remained in contention without their top scorer in the lineup for nearly a quarter of the season. D'Antoni has every right to be impressed with his players and wisely stuck up for them.
If L.A. is going to have any chance of competing for a championship this coming spring, it will need to band together and have flawless rapport. This isn't the most talented roster in the league, and it will not be able to overcome the infighting and poor chemistry issues that plagued it last year.
Gasol Opens Up About His Options
The Lakers made it a priority to re-sign Bryant this season, but they have been surprisingly mum on their plans for Gasol. The 33-year-old Spaniard recently sat down and spoke with NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper about his future.
He made it clear that winning a third championship is definitely a priority at this point in his career, and that factor will greatly influence his decision when he hits free agency after the season.
However, he also plans to take into account finances and loyalty:
There's different factors you have to take into account. The financial factor. That I've been with this franchise, for what I've been through, the loyalty I have to them. And also the chances of winning a championship. Those three are the most. What percentage I will give or prioritize, we'll see when the opportunities come along. But I would like to first be in a position to win a championship again and enjoy the last few years of my career and be in a good position to do so.
Gasol did rule out any possibility of a return to Europe, but he has kept his options open outside of that. He admitted to Howard-Cooper that the potential of rejoining the Memphis Grizzlies—where he spent the first six-plus seasons of his career—and playing alongside his brother, Marc Gasol, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is "appealing."
The veteran is struggling on both ends of the floor this year and may be hurting his value as a free agent. He's averaging a mere 14.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.2 blocks through 21 games, all below his career numbers with the notable exception of boards. Gasol is shooting just 41.7 percent from the field, although that number may soon rise with Bryant back in action and drawing extra defensive attention.
It'll be interesting to see what he does this summer or if the Lakers decide to trade him by the February deadline. Gasol's size, skills and expiring $19.3 million contract make him extremely valuable to both contenders looking to add to their arsenals for a run and tanking teams looking to clear cap space for the summer.
Don't be surprised if something drastic happens either at the deadline or in free agency.