At the conclusion of the Grammy Road Trip, which ends after a Jan. 26 meeting with the underachieving New York Knicks, the Los Angeles Lakers will return home for their next two games. It’s becoming a possibility that the NBA’s fourth All-Time leading scorer, Kobe Bryant, will see the floor before January comes to an end.
As I discussed earlier this month, the Lakers have announced that Bryant and Steve Nash will be evaluated on either Monday or Tuesday of next week, when the team returns to Los Angeles. That’s either Jan. 27 or Jan. 28, meaning that if they’re cleared by team doctors, we could see them in action against the Indiana Pacers next Tuesday.
It’s tough to dissect that Nash hasn’t been on the court for the Lakers since Nov. 10th, playing just 13 minutes against the Minnesota Timberwolves before the back issues became too much for him to handle. Given the amount of time he’s had to recover (nearly three months), he should finally be able to be a consistent option at point guard until the season is over … if he wants, of course. I say that due to the contemplation many believed Nash had on retiring early, realizing he maybe couldn’t handle the grind any longer. He’s going to fit naturally back in the offense, due to his high desire to get others involved, and ability to set up Pau Gasol with his veteran craft of passing. Nash’s defense was left in Phoenix five or six years ago, but the near 40-year-old point guard probably won’t ever lose that slick passing touch.
As for Bryant, there is a strong likelihood Lakers’ fans could see him giving flashbacks of last season’s scoring tear, in which he finished third in the league in the scoring department with 27.3 points per game.
However, there are a couple reasons the expectations can’t be that high for the first two weeks of his “return 2.0.”
First and foremost, Bryant’s latest injury, the fracture of the lateral tibial plateau, was a setback that required him to stay off the left knee. Doctors issued the six week healing period as a “best case scenario” for the bone to heal completely and be ready for action again. In order for the knee to heal, Bryant couldn’t participate in any intense on-court activity. Obviously, he’s going to need a couple weeks and multiple practices to get himself into “game shape.”
During that stretch that he’ll be getting re-acclimated with the offense and figuring out how his knee/Achilles will react to defending athletic guards, everyone shouldn’t be shocked if we see the facilitator Kobe Bryant that he tried to become again in the six games he did play this year. Even though he did only average 6.3 assists per contest in his six games, his pass rate was extremely high, as many would say he often passed too much during possessions. What we seen from Bryant after his December return was a guy that was just waiting for his Achilles to get its strongest before he started looking for more shot opportunities and attacked the paint more frequently. Thus, he looked to get his teammates more involved than they probably expected, and the high turnover ratio evolved in his short span of games after the season debut. Bryant averaged 5.4 turnovers through those six games, three of which included seven or more turnovers. In those three games of turnover issues, his Lakers went 1-2.
There’s one other significant point to throw out there concerning the production we may see from Bryant when he’s cleared.
The Lakers’ current leading scorer, Nick Young, is having himself an impressive stretch as of late. Since Jan. 8th (six games), Young is averaging 22.1 points and four rebounds per game, and also shooting 15.6 attempts per contest. It’s become widely known that Young respects Bryant more than anyone he’s ever played with, calling Kobe “the greatest player to play this game.” What will the nature of the offense be with these two guys in the same rotation? Seeing as how Mike D’Antoni likes to keep Young in the second unit and save him for production off the bench, it could work very well for both the veteran and the swaggy student.
When Young and Bryant are on the floor together, we’ll probably see Young defer to Bryant simply because he thinks it’s what he’s supposed to do. On the other hand, Bryant has gained tons of confidence in this kid since he went down with the knee fracture, because he’s been putting on a show during the Grammy Road Trip, and even personifying some of Bryant’s style of play.
Whether it’s Kendall Marshall (who has proven he now deserves recognition in the NBA) or Steve Nash starting at point guard when Bryant returns to the floor, both are very capable of setting up the five time champion for scoring opportunities. Bryant doesn’t necessarily have to come out and try to light up any scoreboards, but he does have a bit of motivation to do so.
Bryant very well could have been back to his prolific offensive state by now, if the unlucky knee fracture didn’t interrupt his play. He posted three 20-point games (two of which were road victories) right before going down again. That has to still be nagging him that he was on track for a great season post Achilles surgery, something we rarely say about professional athletes. Also, the current Kevin Durant saga is likely making him feel left out. Last season, Bryant tied Carmelo Anthony for most 40-point games of the 2012-13 season (8), and he showed that even a 34-year-0ld man could keep up with the younger guys while shooting a quality percentage. Now at age 35, perhaps he’s ready to show the basketball world just what great footwork, smarts, and fundamentals can get you if you utilize them correctly.
Bryant’s last game, Dec. 17 at Memphis:
From his new return date (either next week or early February), Bryant’s should post a scoring average of at least 24 points per game by the end of the season. Last year, the “Playoff guarantee” brought out a demon in No. 24 that may have been the highest competitive drive we’ll ever see in the NBA. Lord knows the Lakers are far from contenders for the N0. 8 seed in the Western Conference, but if there’s one thing we know about Kobe, he’ll stop at nothing to prove ESPN wrong with their preseason projection of Los Angeles as 12th in the conference. The second return is going to be far greater than the return from the Achilles rupture on Dec. 8th, in which Star Wars music played throughout Staples Center to signify Darth Vader was back.
With the Lakers playing at such a high level of energy and living off the D’Antoni play style, it’s not realistic to expect this team to stay at third in “pace,” a statistic used to measure how many possessions a team gets per 48 minutes, when the veterans return. Whether it’s a wise choice or not, Bryant and Nash are going to want to organize the offense in a better manner, and play at a slightly slower tempo. If there’s one thing certain about this, it’s that Pau Gasol will be completely supportive, as he has been terrorizing the paint lately and will have chances to do so even more. Monday’s overtime loss in Chicago made eight out of the last 10 games that Gasol has posted 20 points or more. If the Spaniard and Swaggy P are playing this well, it leaves the door open to think how versatile and unique this team can be when Bryant and Nash are re-entered into the mix.
The injury bug has bitten Bryant and the Lakers dating back to last season. It could finally be the time, however, that a healthy roster determines if they’re worthy of making a late season push, or planning for the future.