After consecutive days of practice where he was able to fully participate in team activities all signs point towards a potential Kobe Bryant return Sunday at home versus the Toronto Raptors. With the Lakers off to a solid start and the look of a potential Western Conference playoff contender the return of their superstar from an Achilles injury suffered last April versus the Golden State Warriors should give the franchise an additional boost. After a difficult playoff exit that involved a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs and the loss of center Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets tmany pundits were critical of the Lakers chances heading into the 2013-2014 season. After remaking the roster with limited resources to do so the Lakers are in the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference and in a position to make a potential playoff run.
The big question is what can the Lakers expect from Bryant when he returns? Bryant isn’t the first NBA superstar to return from a torn Achilles. Four well known players who have suffered the injury and returned are Dominique Wilkins, Isiah Thomas, Chauncey Billups and Elton Brand. For Wilkins and Thomas, the results were mixed. Wilkins, the former Atlanta Hawks superstar suffered his injury at the age of thirty-two and returned nine months later, playing an additional seven seasons and averaging nearly thirty points a game in the season he returned. Thomas, the former Detroit Pistons Hall of Famer suffered the injury fourteen seasons into his career and never returned. Elton Brand returned and played an additional seven seasons but never had the same explosiveness. Bryant, known for his incredible work ethic, has aggressively rehabbed the injury and all indications from Lakers practice are that he’s ready to return to the NBA.
General Manager Mitch Kupchak did a solid job this offseason adding to the roster to inject some youth and athleticism into the roster. The Lakers now go as much as ten players deep with no one on the roster averaging more than thirty-minutes per game. Bryant will be able to smoothly work his way back into the rotation but unlike last season the Lakers won’t be forced to play their superstar more minutes than they’d like. Last season Bryant averaged 38.6 minutes per game, his highest number in nearly five seasons. The Lakers renewed depth will allow D’Antoni to slowly build up Bryant’s minutes as the Lakers contend for and hopefully reach the playoffs. The fewer minutes should make Bryant more efficient on both the offensive and defensive ends. He had a wonderful season last year but by most indications his defense suffered. Like most veteran players Bryant has reached the point where he has to pick his spots defensively and conserve his energy. Fewer minutes should allow Bryant to maximize his energy on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. With the addition of Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, Xavier Henry and Jordan Farmar (once he returns from injury) the Lakers have more options off the bench to spell Bryant. At the same time the Lakers young players, especially Young and Johnson, should benefit from the presence of Bryant. Johnson, a former fourth overall draft pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves, is a tremendous athlete with the ability to defend several positions on the court and hit the three point shot. Nick Young, a Los Angeles native, has provided instant offense off the bench and given the Lakers a go-to perimeter player down the stretch. When Bryant returns he’ll be able to once again take over the crunch time duties and allow Young to come in and provide a scoring touch when Bryant rests. The Lakers depth should also allow them to not have to play Bryant in back-to-back nights until he works himself back into game shape.
In addition to his customary shooting guard/small forward role, Head Coach Mike D’Antoni indicated that Bryant may play some point guard upon his return, signaling the fact that the return of Steve Nash be not be as soon as the return of Bryant. With Jordan Farmar on the shelf for at least the next month the Lakers need an option to spell current starting point guard Steve Blake. Sliding Bryant into an occasional point guard role will not upset the Lakers current rotation and give them a bigger lineup that could provide some defensive challenges for Western Conference teams with smaller back courts.
If Bryant does return Sunday versus the Toronto Raptors he’ll have a fired up STAPLES Center crowd and consecutive home games to get ready for a tough slate of upcoming games. Following the matchup with Rudy Gay and the Raptors the Lakers host the surprising Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night. Following the Suns game the Lakers have three days off before they head out on a road trip that includes four games in five days. The road trip kicks off with a high profile matchup in Oklahoma City versus Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. With a manageable schedule prior the Lakers could very well head into Oklahoma City multiple games over the .500 record mark. After the Lakers face the Thunder they have to travel to Charlotte to face the Bobcats in a back-to-back. As much as Bryant would love to play against the team built by his boyhood idol Michael Jordan it’s hard to imagine the Lakers playing him in back-to-back night so soon after his return. The Lakers will spend the weekend on the east coast followed by consecutive games at Atlanta and Memphis before they return home to STAPLES Center to face the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, December 20th.
The big date on the Lakers calendar is the Christmas Day visit to STAPLES Center by Lebron James and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. If Bryant can return Sunday night versus the Raptors he’ll have just over two weeks to prepare for the Heat and the traditional nationally televised Christmas Day games. If the Lakers can properly manage the next three weeks of games they’ll be well positioned to charge into the New Year as legitimate playoff contenders.