Last week, a visit with the doctor showed that Kobe Bryant, who has sat out a majority of the season while rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles and a knee fracture, will sit out at least three more weeks before another check-up. At the very least, this will leave the Mamba at a mid- to late-March return, the timing of which leaves about a dozen games to go in the regular season. In terms of a 2013-2014 season comeback, the nature of Kobe's injury, his age and LA's lost season has left many to speculate whether or not it'd even be worth it for Bryant to return.
Some have argued that they wouldn't want Kobe to return simply for health reasons. Others in the pro-tanking bandwagon say that seeing as Bryant could help the team get better this year, a return only hurts the Lakers long-term. And then there's a minority that just wants to see their beloved #24 back on the floor in a purple and gold jersey.
With the multitude of opinions out there, we thought we'd take the pulse of the writers here on SS&R and get their opinions--should Bryant come back this season?
The Great Mambino
Unfortunately, the seemingly canned answer is the best one: only if he's healthy.
I hate to be redundant, but the facts are the facts: this is a lost season for the Lakers who would need to essentially run the table the rest of the year to make the playoffs. If Kobe Bryant only competes to win championships, as he so often crows triumphantly (as is his right), then why are you even thinking about coming back Mamba? His stated goal is a stark unreality.
That being said, I've written time and time again that this season is nothing but an audition for just about every player to see if they'll be a Laker once again in November. With the exception of Kendall Marshall, Robert Sacre, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, just about every player will be a free agent this summer. The Lakers need the next 20-something games to see just who fits and what types of salaries they'll justifiably command. That is the stated goal over the next two months, whether the team utters that out loud or not.
However, part of being a Laker next year--and the season after--is being teammates with Kobe Bryant. That qualification has been a baseline requirement for the past decade of LA basketball, which is admittedly not an inherent trait that some players (especially big men, apparently) carry within them. The Mamba coming back, only if healthy, would be most important in seeing which of these young players can best play alongside him. For example, if MarShon Brooks doesn't look like he can run alongside Bryant and help out the team without taking eight-plus shots per night, he might not be a fit beyond this season. Same goes for Nick Young and Kent Bazemore, each of whom has varying degrees as to how they'll have to change their games to fit in the same back court as Kobe.
Bryant is going to be on the team next season, that much is guaranteed. With the Lakers salary cap situation so tenuous as is, the team is far better off knowing if they're spending their money on those that can jibe with their highest paid man. At this point, we're looking at 15 games or less from Kobe Bryant. It's not enough time for him to regain elite form and help the Lakers win games (for those of you in the pro-tanking sect) and in fact, may hinder the team from winning with the enormous adjustments they'll have to make to accomodate him. In my mind, it's a win-win proposition for the Lakers... as long as we're talking about victories.
It really depends on Kobe's health and how his recovery is proceeding. There's obviously no reason to hurry him back in a lost season in which losses are a good thing and the team can trot out any number of reclamation projects to see how they perform with big minutes, Kent Bazemore the most recent beneficiary of this. By the same token, there's something to be said for getting Kobe himself out there on the court to kick off the proverbial rust and establish a good base for coming back next season. There's not really a big danger of him worsening the Lakers' draft position because of the huge schematic changes required whenever Kobe inserts himself into the offense, which, as we saw earlier in the year, required a significant adjustment period that screwed with the overall offensive flow. That adjustment will also apply to the team's numerous reclamation projects, especially considering there already is a glut of wing players thanks to the Steve Blake trade, but when it really comes down to it, Kobe himself will ultimately determine the team's fortunes in the upcoming two years. How he plays is more important than nabbing a few smart acquisitions on the fly, so the restoration of the team's primary (and only) superstar to that status should be a paramount objective for the team.
And on Kobe's part, he no doubt continues to have supreme confidence in his own abilities, but there's no substitute for real game time and getting on the floor to better understand what his body can and can't do. Can he still blow by guys on the perimeter and accelerate after rounding the corner on the pick-and-roll? Does his footwork in the post still have the necessary crispness and provide enough elevation for him to be effective? How does he work within what is increasingly turning into a very up-and-down team that thrives in transition thanks to Kendall Marshall's passing and the speed of Kent Bazemore, Wesley Johnson, and a whole coterie of athletic wings? For that matter, how do all of the aforementioned guys do without the ball in their hands and how do they adjust appropriately? Kobe might not be around enough this season to provide good answers for that last question, but that's a worthwhile task to focus on nevertheless.
Given the team's tight financial restrictions I wrote about yesterday, moreover, Kobe coming back might have the added benefit of pushing down the price of potential retention candidates this offseason. At least one of Xavier Henry, MarShon Brooks, or Jodie Meeks is getting especially squeezed for minutes with Kobe coming back and it would be nice to have them back on the team next season. Meeks' asking price is still probably out of the Lakers' ballpark, but the rest of the young guys coming off their rookie deals would fall into this category. Henry has displayed enough upside and scoring chops to deserve another look next season, Brooks is possibly a good replacement for Nick Young should he not exercise his player option as most expect him to do, and although Bazemore seems to have cemented a spot in the rotation no matter what happens because of his positional versatility and interesting two-way potential, warding off offers in his restricted free agency this upcoming summer would be nice.
Again, Kobe shouldn't accelerate his recovery schedule just to play in a handful of token games this season. But if he is actually healthy and isn't going to re-injure himself by playing, then it is by all means a good thing for both him and the team for him to do so. We are already playing the long game with the rest of the roster and this applies to Kobe as well.
This is a difficult question to answer as I could argue for or against his return rather easily. If forced to choose, I will say yes he should return.
Coming into the season I felt that the Lakers had an outside shot at making the playoffs. The very incorrect prediction was based on the poor assumption that Murphy's Law, with regard to injuries, wouldn't strike in such a comical fashion two years in a row. Needless to say, Murphy's kicked the crap out of our beloved Lakers and now there is little left to play for. Deep down however I figured that even if the season went off the rails, Kobe would have something to play for: Kareem's all-time scoring crown. Unfortunately any sliver of hope Kobe had at catching Kareem has pretty much vanished with the second injury this season.
If Kobe were to come back, it could be an opportunity for him to launch as many shots as his heart desires and no one could criticize him for it. After all, no one really cares enough about the Lakers this season anyway to critique such a decision. If given complete free reign to do nothing but shoot every time he touches the ball, how much could the Black Mamba score? Could he clear 60? How about matching 81? Could the stars align allowing him to surpass Wilt's 100? The realistic answer to all those questions is no. Coming back this late in the season, facing conditioning issues and having to shake off the rust, Kobe would face long odds at putting up a vintage Kobe performance even once. So if Kobe can't catch Kareem's all-time scoring mark or Wilt's highest scoring game in history, what is there left to play for?
The reason I think Kobe should return is that he needs to show the world that he is still capable of playing. The Achilles injury was devastating and many questioned his ability to return. While he did return and began to show signs of rediscovering his game, the second injury prompts the ugly question or whether Kobe's body in general will allow him to play much more. Has he hit the point of no return with regard to his body? If he has, then does that change the Lakers plans in any way? Instead of pairing Kobe with another star in 2015 and chasing a ring, does the reality become finding a star simply to play with Kobe on his final farewell tour and then focusing on a second star after Bryant hangs it all up. Rather than facing an entire off-season questioning whether Bryant can even continue in his career, it would be nice to know definitely. For that reason alone, I think he should return. It has nothing to do with scoring or wins. It has everything to do with addressing the biggest unknown that the Lakers face: whether or not Bryant can even play again.
If Kobe is healthy enough to play, he should get in a few games at the end of the season. The reason for this: getting back into game shape. We saw Derrick Rose come back this season and look completely out of it. The only way for Kobe to finish his rehab is for him to get him some game action. Along with that, Kobe being on the court is going to help some of the other players. He would definitely be able to help run the offense, and help with the transition of all these new players. It would also mean the Lakers finally have a constant in their starting rotation. They would no longer have a different guard in the starting lineup every night.
However, Kobe should only come back if he is 100 percent healthy. We don't need another setback, or another injury. If he is available to come back, he shouldn't hinder the tanking process. He's not going to help the defense -- he might even make it worse, somehow. Furthermore, if he plays the way he did when he came back earlier in the season, there will be a lot of turnovers, which is a good way to give the opposing team free points.
It's been a long time since we've seen a fully healthy Kobe Bryant. If he is capable of getting fully healed by the last couple weeks of the season, Kobe should most definitely give it a go, even if it is for 20 minutes a game. There's only one way to get into game shape for next season, and that's by playing.