The first 20 games of the 2013-2014 NBA season sure have provided us fans of the Los Angeles Lakers some happy memories. Remember when the Los Angeles Lakers won on opening night against the cross-arena Los Angeles Clippers, with the bench unit destroying the Clippers starters down the stretch? Remember when the Lakers went into Houston like the little engine that could, and slew
Goliath er Dwight Howard's Rockets with a game winning three pointer? Remember when they provided us with fun and entertainment and joy as much in defeat as they did in victory, like when they rallied against the Portland Trailblazers? Remember how much fun it was to watch Lakers games and wonder which bizarre and random Laker was going to have an amazing night?
Well, that was nice while it lasted, wasn't it?
Whatever magic the Lakers tapped into seems to be quickly slipping away now, with a sequence of events putting the Lakers right back into whatever hell they found themselves in all of last season. First off, the injury bug is once again rearing its ugly head like a hydra. The team has once again managed to lose two point guards to serious injury in a ten day span, losing Jordan Farmar on Dec. 2nd for at least a month with a torn hamstring and finding out today that Steve Blake will miss six weeks due to his ailing elbow. This comes on the back of Steve Nash's undefinable injury and its indefinite timetable, meaning the Lakers have now plunged to further depth chart depths than they managed even in last season's debacle. Add in an ankle injury to Pau Gasol that has seen his production falter in the past few games (from an already mediocre baseline), and you've got a recipe for an all-too-familiar health disaster the Lakers simply could not afford with their already dwindled stock of talent.
All these injuries are bad, but their timing is, if possible, even worse. For all this to happen right as Kobe Bryant returns to the fold is unfortunate to the point of intolerable cruelty. The team was already in for a struggle in learning how to re-incorporate such an important piece of their puzzle, especially one that changes the entire scheme as much as Kobe Bryant does. But now, without any of the point guards responsible for successfully running the Lakers offense before Kobe, the Lakers will be plunged head-first into a Kobe-centric offensive game plan without a net of any kind. There is no backup plan now. It will be sink or swim for the Lakers, and with a large number of difficult road games in the team's future, it will most likely be the former.
But even that isn't the biggest misfortune of all. The problem with this confluence of unfortunate circumstances is that all of it will fit into a comfortable and easy to write narrative about Kobe Bryant returning to the team. Because the Lakers were playing well in Kobe's absence. They were playing with a strong team chemistry and high team spirit. They were outperforming the low expectations that existed in Kobe's absence. Now, Kobe comes back and the Lakers are no longer playing well. Even in their second game, you could see signs of a diminished energy and team spirit. Their expectations are no longer quite so low, and so far, those not quite so low expectations are not being met.
So you see, Kobe Bryant is the reason the Lakers are likely to struggle. If the Lakers falter now, it will be Kobe Bryant's fault. If the Lakers no longer look like the same free-wheeling, fun-loving, never-say-die team they did a couple weeks ago, there can be only one explanation. Kobe Bryant is to blame. Nevermind that teams who lose three separate point guards to injury rarely do well. Nevermind that teams who have players dropping like flies rarely have fun. Nevermind that the Lakers might never have been that good and might have been due to regress anyway. There is a story to write, and an easy one at that, one that connects the dots ever so cleanly.
As the Lakers learned last season, once a narrative is written, it is much, much harder to un-write, especially when there are elements of truth to the narrative in the first place. And there are elements of truth to the narrative. The Lakers have most certainly looked different, and not in positive ways, in the two games since Kobe Bryant has returned. The offense has been less crisp and the defense less spirited. Kobe and the team deserve way more than a two game sample with which to make definitive judgments, but you could hardly watch those two games and come away thinking there definitely isn't anything to be concerned about. Unless the Lakers can somehow get things turned around and get back to the fun brand of basketball that, win or lose, made the beginning of this season so enjoyable, this will be what the rest of the season boils down to - arguing about whether the Lakers would be better off with or without Kobe Bryant.
And there's nothing magical about that.