Before every game played by the Los Angeles Lakers, we do our best here at Silver Screen and Roll to give you a heads up as to the prevailing storylines heading into the game. Who are the Lakers playing? What's going on with the Lakers heading into the game? What's going on with the Lakers' opponent heading into the game? Who plays for the other team, and what do they like to do? How do the teams match up? Who should be expected to win? These are all questions you might expect us to address in order to give you a snapshot of expectation heading into the contest.
Just not tonight.
Tonight, the Lakers will play a game of professional basketball. Their opponent (the Toronto Raptors) doesn't matter. Their strategy doesn't matter. Their present form doesn't matter. How they match up doesn't matter. Who should be expected to win doesn't matter. And, except for one huge, glaring exception, their available personnel doesn't matter either. The glaring exception is all that matters. The glaring exception is Kobe Bryant.
He's back. Tonight, The Black Mamba returns to play his first game since shredding his Achilles tendon near the end of the previous season. Much has changed since he last left the Staples Center court in early April. Instead of being on a team struggling to meet ridiculous expectations, he is returning to a team which has significantly out-performed the low expectations placed upon them in his absence. When he left, he was embroiled in a fight over the Lakers locker room with alpha-dog wannabe Dwight Howard. Now, the team is undoubtedly his again (not that he was ever really in danger of losing it), for better or for worse. When he left, he was in the midst of sacrificing his body in every possible way to try and push his disappointing team into the playoffs and beyond. Now, managing his health is far more important to everyone than how the team performs this season, or it damn well should be. Those are the easy changes to diagnose, the changes which will remain true regardless of how Kobe comes back and fits in to the team scheme.
But the other changes to the team are more interesting, because the other changes are changes that Kobe Bryant's return could either enhance or destroy. For example, the team Kobe left had no identity and a team chemistry so fractured that multiple "players-only" meetings were not enough to sort out their issues. The team Kobe joins today is having so much fun being the weird, plucky, resilient underdogs that the rest of the league doesn't really know what to make of them. Can Kobe join in the team-first, fast-paced, ball-movement centric offensive flow without needing to slow things down every time the ball touches his hands? Can a team with Kobe Bryant on it even be plucky?
Kobe left a team that was far poorer defensively than they should have been, in part because his defensive effort was often so bad as to be considered shameful. In his absence, this year's Lakers have succeeded by making the absolute most of their poor defensive talent, somehow cobbling a slightly-less-than-average defense out of parts that do not appear remotely competent defensively by, for lack of a better way to phrase it, working their asses off. Will Kobe be willing to put in the same level of effort as his lesser cohorts have consistently done? Or, as the team's leader, will Kobe return to treating defense like a chore and break the mentality that has the Lakers performing so much more capably on defense than anybody expected?
Most importantly, Kobe Bryant left the court in April as one the league's premier players, not just by legend or reputation, but still, even in his 17th season, as one of the most capable players in the world (on offense, at least). He returns tonight as ... what? Will he be the same player, with the same capabilities, as he was last season? Will his athleticism be significantly reduced? Will he find ways to adjust to the reality of his new athleticism so that his production does not suffer? Can he still be an elite player at his age, coming back from a devastating injury? And if he can't be elite, is he willing to adjust his role and responsibilities accordingly?
These are the questions we care about. Not all of them can be answered tonight ... in fact, none of them can be answered with anything approaching conviction in one evening. But tonight begins the process, and as such, these are the only questions to be concerned with.
But, to be honest, tonight is not even about the questions. Tonight, Kobe Bryant's basketball team will play another basketball team, and Kobe Bryant will be involved. For one night, at least, the rest of the ins and outs, the x's and o's, the implications and complications can all take a back seat. We get to watch a legend put on that Lakers uniform and do what he has spent the last 17 years making us love him for. Despite having seen Kobe Bryant play basketball so very many times before, tonight, it feels brand new again.
Welcome back, Mamba. We've missed you.