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Lakers season preview: Kobe Bryant's return is finally here

Kobe Bryant is back, and that's what matters. Forget about the future and enjoy what one of the greats has left to offer.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

As Kobe Bryant prepares for his final two NBA seasons, everyone, myself included, has already started bidding their farewells. But through the YouTube montages and 20/20 hindsight, there is still work to be done – missed games, postseasons, and buckets to atone for.

Even with a repaired Achilles and kneecap, Kobe isn’t a 13.8-points per game scorer, and assuming that’s what has become of him the past 15 months, it certainly isn’t to the tune of 42.5 percent shooting.

Chris Ballard’s remarkable Sports Illustrated interview with Bryant shows the Mamba anticipating a more tempered approach to the basketball court, all things considered. "I’ll be more efficient in areas," he explained. "I’ll be limited in terms of what you see me do, versus a couple of years ago. But very, very methodical – very, very purposeful."

It’s that purpose – the aged, cagey champion calculating his acclaimed return – that drives Bryant before we hasten his departure. Observing an all-time great’s decline is never easy, oftentimes reminding us how temporary sports can be for even the most transcendent talents. Bones inevitably grow brittle, forcing former Slam Dunk champions such as Bryant to generate more juice for powerful dunks that were once a little more routine. It happens, but the most memorable figures eventually adjust to the inevitable, and Bryant has been no different.

The NBA’s fourth all-time leading scorer last played on December 17, 2013, when he scored a season-best 21 points on 9-of-18 shooting, nailing a 28-footer to seal a 96-92 victory. That play came on a broken kneecap, which is partially why Bryant will likely be the team’s de-facto option in the low post. Julius Randle will learn from the bench, while Carlos Boozer – still a relative interior presence – has basically become a jump-shooter. That leaves Bryant on the block, where he’s gradually honed his impeccable footwork and savvy counter-moves since 2010.

This season, that will be a welcomed sight for the Los Angeles Lakers. The team ranked only 19th in 2-point shooting percentage during the 2013-14 campaign, partially due to Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense. The rest is due to the team’s lackluster supporting cast, which returns minus four of its five best three-point shooters (Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Kendall Marshall). It will be up to Bryant to not only find efficient points for himself, but create them for teammates. Jeremy Lin is certainly an upgrade over the almost-retired Steve Nash, but the offense will inevitably flow through Bryant, who’s become a more conscious passer over the past few seasons, averaging a career-best 6.0 assists per game before his Achilles tear.

Indeed, numbers won’t paint the entire picture. Chemistry will be pivotal for a Lakers team devoid of overwhelming talent. Niches must be filled, roles determined. As an aging Bryant further masters the post like Michael Jordan before him, he’ll need Lin, Randle, Wesley Johnson and Nick Young to complement him with their athleticism. Last season, Johnson was one of ten players with at least 75 steals and blocks, a list including Joakim Noah, DeAndre Jordan and Anthony Davis. Of course, the former no. 4 pick is nowhere near their overall pedigree, but his length and athleticism should count for something. Young, of course, is Bryant’s spirit animal, daring to venture where no rational shot-selection has ever journeyed, but he did shoot 45 percent or better on 30 occasions with no Bryant, Lin, or Randle to rely on. Meanwhile, Lin and Randle will add versatile dimensions to positions that have been relatively ground-bound for quite a while.

Ultimately, though, it will all come back to Bryant – his league-high $23.5 million salary commands it. And the five-time champion readily welcomes the challenge. A 17th All-Star nomination is merely a consolation for a man driven to win a sixth title, skeptics be damned. "We’re going to shock the world," he’s reflected, speaking on his journeyman-laden supporting cast.

But before we offer our "Well Actually" rebuttals centered on advanced age, crumbling bodies, and cellar-dweller status, we should join Bryant in greeting another season – the welcoming of a clean slate. Though last season is a measuring stick, it’s also, even if temporarily, in the rear-view mirror with one prominent exception: Kobe Bryant is back again.

Let’s sweat tomorrow later.

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