Kobe Bryant or not, LA's shooting guards must step up

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

We take a look at the Lakers' 2-guards in our positional season preview breakdown series

For the past decade and a half, this specific post has been, quite frankly, really, really boring.

"Kobe Bryant will be the Lakers' starting shooting guard. He is going to play 35+ minutes a night and he is going to be amazing. Let's hope that _____ can shore up anywhere between 10 and 13 minutes a night when the Mamba rests and recharges for a fourth quarter surge."

And Kazaam! One 7-foot genie later, we're done.

But with one wrong step on a scoring drive six months ago, this post became infinitely more intriguing. Perhaps not just for now, but for the foreseeable future.

Kobe Bryant most likely will not be LA's opening night shooting guard for the first time since 2006, as he rehabs from a ruptured Achilles tendon. The team has still not given out a specific time table for the two-time Finals MVP's return, but the usual recovery schedule from such an injury is anywhere from six to nine months. You're on the clock, Mamba.

Thus, one could argue that the Lakers' 2-guard understudies haven't been this important in almost 20 years. Several players are going to have to play heavy minutes alongside starting point guard Steve Nash, a trend which I suspect will continue even when Bryant eventually comes back. Regardless of how competitive and relentless Kobe is, he's still a 35-year-old man trying to make it back from what is usually an extremely debilitating injury that changes the trajectory of many, if not most careers. He won't be able to hit the ground running at 35-40 minutes upon his return, which makes his supporting cast of 2-guards even more important than usual. This just in: Kobe Bryant is a mortal man.

Let's take a detailed look at just who will be filling out Mike D'Antoni's SG slot this season:

Kobe Bryant

If the Black Mamba is healthy, we all know what we're getting even in his 18th season: premium offense production, mediocre (at best) defense and one of the best shows in the NBA.

If he is coming back from a very serious injury in his 18th season? I have no idea.

The most difficult part of this NBA season is trying to predict what type of player Kobe Bryant is going to be when he comes back from a torn Achilles. Will he still be able to post effectively and push off? Will he be able to get to the rim with any sort of explosiveness? Will be get his shot blocked on fade-aways without the same type of lift? Will his defense tilt even further from "I don't even want to try and get there" to "I can't even try and get there"? No player in NBA history has ever come back from this type of injury, at his age, and played at an All-Star level. Ever. Dominique Wilkins did it as a 32 year-old, but as great as 'Nique was, he was not Kobe Bryant.

Sadly, there is no doubt in my mind that we've seen the last of that Kobe Bryant, the guy we've seen for the last 17 years. He won't have the same lift, or lateral movement or explosiveness. That guy is gone, forever.

It's not just the nature of the injury, but rather the age at which it happened and the effect it has had on his off-season training. As I wrote about months ago, Kobe's career has so closely mirrored New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter's, all the way down to major injuries towards the end of their careers. Jeter only ended up playing a fraction of this past season, as he re-broke his ankle early on during rehab, and then towards the end of the year found himself wearing down with quad and calf injuries. Jeter claimed that his off-season of ankle rehab robbed him of the ability to fine tune his body in the manner necessary for a player in his late thirties to maintain the energy for elite production. Like Jeter, Kobe has had a summer doing leg lifts and anti-gravity treadmill jogs. He hasn't been able to diligently slave away at his usual routines that keep him fresh and ready for the intense grind of a 82-game marathon. I fear that, like Jeter, a bunch of injuries could crop up simply because Bryant didn't have the proper preparation for the upcoming year. There's really no telling what we'll get from Kobe Bryant this season. I wouldn't be surprised if he missed 65 games, but I also wouldn't be surprised if he played at 80% of his capacity from season's past and looked like an All-Star.

However, since this is a positional breakdown post, I surmise what we will see is the same cunning, cutthroat player that's always been able to adapt and adjust with time. I suspect we'll see him post up more, making plays from the elbow like a shorter, better looking Vlade Divac in his prime. More than that, I'm envisioning him further embracing his dead eye mid-range jumper, running off multiple screens and biding his time for easy buckets.

Again, this is all just speculation. What I do know for sure is that Kobe will probably miss part of the season and even if he doesn't, he won't be in a rhythm immediately upon his return, no matter when that is. Usually, the Lakers will only go as far as Kobe Bryant can take them. However, with so many new faces in training camp, a very suspect defense and several core players with sketchy injury histories, there's too many variables to say that the season rests squarely on the Mamba's shoulders.

But there's one fact that there's little to speculate on: the guy we all loved watching so much is gone. A new guy will be wearing that number 24 jersey and I have no idea what he'll look like.

Jodie Meeks

Meeks may be the only player on this list without point guard or small forward positional versatility, making his success this season all the more pertinent.

Jodie had a very up-and-down inaugural campaign with the Lakers, finding himself in and out of the rotation as Mike D'Antoni twirled his mustache and tried to find out just who could play for him. Once he found his way into steady minutes, Meeks proved erratic at his supposed specialty: stroking the 3-ball. He followed up a .349 3P% in January with a spectacular .418 in February and then slumping to .309 from the three-point line from March onwards. These type of splits aren't terribly uncommon for Meeks, as he vacillated wildly in his three-point accuracy during his time with the Philadelphia 76ers as well. Though Kobe has rarely been a great three-point shooter (especially contrary to the volume at which he chucks them up), he's had the luxury of being, well, Kobe Bryant. Meeks will need to excel at looks from three-point land to be an effective player in Kobe's stead, as well as in the company of low post threats like Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman. Jodie doesn't have the ability to change speeds and drive to the hoops, nor does he have the ability to take mid-range jumpers.

In regards to the latter, Meeks threw down just 81 of his 534 field goal attempts from mid-range last year, which isn't stunning considering he only made 26 of them. It's not uncommon for Jodie at all--after making just 26% and 22% of these shots the two seasons before last, perhaps it's for the best that he doesn't even try and emulate Kobe from 5 to 25 feet. If only he had the alternative of driving to the rack...which he does not. And to anyone that watched the Lakers day in and day out last year, they'd know exactly what I'm talking about. Meeks shot just 53% at the rim last year, a pitiful percentage even considering his position. In transition, he's somehow worse, scoring on just 39% of those attempts, according to Synergy. He simply has difficulty finishing at the rim, which doesn't bode well considering that the team will have Meeks playing exclusively off ball.

Defensively, the effort is there, but the former UK guard simply doesn't have the size or strength to match up with some of the tougher defenders in the league. In his short stint subbing for Bryant after the latter's injury towards the end of the season, Meeks was routinely abused by larger guards, specifically when Manu Ginobili did anything he wanted besides taking Jodie behind the shed and going Old Yeller on him.

In short, Meeks has the potential to be a long-range threat, but he's an extremely one-dimensional player who will be over-extended if he's asked to do much more than be a spot-up shooter. Unfortunately, that's exactly what might happen with Bryant either limited, resting or inactive altogether.

Xavier Henry

If the Lakers are holding a secret "Busted 20th or Lower Draft Pick" party in training camp, then they're doing a bad job of hiding it.

Henry was a highly regarded prospect coming out of high school, so much so that he got an offer to play under coach Bill Self at the Big 12 powerhouse University of Kansas. Xavier did well his freshmen year, averaging 13 points and 4 rebounds, but did not rack up the type of production some thought he'd be capable of. Henry nonetheless left Kansas after one year with a big jump to the NBA.

That would be the last big jump that he'd make to date. In his three professional seasons, Henry hasn't been able to find consistency of any kind--minutes, shots or defensive intensity. On sheer physical appearance, he looks like an NBA professional. But statistically, nothing backs that up. He's almost completely abandoned the three-point shot that he looked at least proficient at in his time at KU and despite his size and athleticism, he seems to have a difficult time grasping defensive team concepts. It's hard to say he hasn't gotten the opportunity to succeed either: he's been beaten out for minutes by guys like Sam Young (on a Memphis team thirsting for another swing man to team with Tony Allen), as well as Roger Mason, Jr. and Austin Rivers on a young New Orleans team looking for prospects.

That all being said, he's still just 22 years old, and perhaps he hasn't had the right coach to get him across the Rubicon. To a certain extent, he's still a blue chip prospect and there's room for him to develop into a legitimate NBA rotation player. Xavier is only on a partially guaranteed deal with the Lakers, but after 29 and 14 point performances in his first two preseason games, as well as the team's need at the swing man spot, there's little doubt at this point that he'll make the team. In order to get regular playing time, he'll have to show that he can rediscover his long range stroke and defend on an NBA level.

Steve Blake/Jordan Farmar/Wesley Johnson

Blake, Farmar and Johnson are all going to be in the rotation in other roles, but with Kobe's absence and slow return, all three players should figure to receive minutes alongside Steve Nash or even one another during the season as a backcourt tandem.

Out of the three, Farmar figures to be the most effective playing the off-guard position with his proficiency shooting from the arc, his ability to shoot off the catch and drive to the rack. Hopefully, none of these skills have eroded in his two years overseas and he'll be useful to Mike D'Antoni as a combo guard off the bench. Blake too showed that he's capable of playing off-guard with Nash or Bryant as primary playmakers, though his inconsistency as a shooter really limits his efficiency.

Small forward Wesley Johnson figures to get some minutes at the shooting guard spot despite his putrid start in the preseason and a foot injury that's left him listed as day-to-day. I suspect that he's a long shot to crack the rotation in this role, especially if Blake, Farmar, Nash and Meeks can score consistently. The only way Johnson gets minutes at the off-guard slot is if he excels defensively while the four aforementioned 6'3" and under troupe stumbles.

Overall, it's hard to measure just how effective the Lakers' shooting guards will be because there's no telling how much or how little they'll be asked to do with Kobe Bryant's return and 2013-2014 performance in question. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the more healthy KB is, the less the team will have to ask of lesser or unproven players. And the less they have to ask of them, the better off the Lakers will be.

If the Mamba can't be the Mamba this season, this could very well be one of the worst group of shooting guards in the NBA.

--Mambino

--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino

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