Only seven months after rupturing his Achilles tendon, Kobe Bryant appears to be closer than ever to making his season debut in what will be his 17th year with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Bryant returned to practice on Saturday, with teammates saying he looked “surprisingly good, sharp and explosive”, according to Ken Berger of CBSSports.com.
Lacking a go-to player in his absence, the Lakers have been far too inconsistent in their play, starting the season 5-7 and have yet to win back-to-back games thus far. But there is optimism regarding how some of the players are beginning to thrive in their newfound roles with the team.
This is a team with many new faces playing in coach Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system (he doesn’t coach defense), a system that we have seen over the years inflate any average player’s numbers (Jeremy Lin looked like an All-Star).
Jordan Hill, who was just an afterthought for D’Antoni all of last season, has now started the past four games alongside Pau Gasol, posting a PER of 25.20 in just 20.9 minutes per game. Just so we understand the type of efficiency Hill is showing, there are only seven other players with higher PERs–LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul to name a few. Most recently against the Detroit Pistons stout front line of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, Hill was a one-man wrecking crew, posting career highs of 24 points and 17 rebounds.
He is not the only one whose play has elevated in the D’Antoni system. The Lakers have two players who are gunning for Sixth Man of the Year in Jodie Meeks and Nick Young. Meeks scored a season-high 25 points against Memphis and is the team’s leading scorer at 13.7 points per game. Young is tied for second with Gasol at 13.0 points per game and in the last two games has shot better than 50 percent and scored 19 and 18 points, respectively.
Steve Blake has been relied upon more and more due to Steve Nash’s health and is the top assist man with 7.3 per game, tied for eighth best in the league. With clutch play, he’s garnered the nickname “Blake Mamba” as well.
These are the type of players where a star like Bryant can inflate their numbers even more. Ideally, Bryant can return and just be the go-to guy in crunch time while also being the vocal leader to hold others accountable.
Gasol and Nash, two of the top veteran leaders on the team, have been the most disappointing. It’s most surprising that Gasol has started the season averaging fewer points than he did last year, especially after having knee surgery in the offseason to prepare for the long season. As we saw with the Lakers championship team in 2010, Gasol is best suited as a second option, so he could be rejuvenated once Bryant returns.
As for Nash, he just can’t stay healthy. Last year, it started with the fractured leg early in the season, and now its chronic back issues where he’s reportedly considering retirement. It’s another case of Father Time being undefeated.
Which Bryant will we see upon his return? The scoring version-strictly dedicated to getting his own shots and not much else, with his eyes set on a scoring title? Or the playmaking version–the one we saw reach double digits in assists numerous times last season?
When he does decide to suit up in that Laker gold once more, the NBA world will be watching. And in the words of Bryant, we should all “pray for the bear”–in his mind, all of the players and reporters thinking he would never be able to recover from the injury.
Well, he’s just about back now and time will tell if even the Black Mamba can change the fortunes of this current Laker team and lead them into the playoffs.