Like an airplane circling back around the airport waiting for an open runway, Kobe Bryant, nearly eight months removed from snapping the Achilles tendon in his left leg, is finally hovering near a return to game action.
It could happen on Sunday, at home against the Toronto Raptors. Maybe it will be Tuesday against the Phoenix Suns, another game played at Staples Center. Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni said that it’s imminent. When asked to frame Bryant’s comeback date in terms of being either days or weeks away after practice Thursday, D’Antoni chose days.
Now the No. 1 question facing the Lakers this season shifts from “When will Bryant return?” to “How will he look when he does?”
Bryant enjoyed one of the finest individual seasons of his 18-year career before suffering his Achilles tear, averaging 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting, 6.0 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 38.6 minutes per game as he finished fifth the league’s MVP voting despite the Lakers’ rocky record.
The one number in that statistical line that is sure to change, at least initially, is Bryant’s minutes. Bryant has already conceded as much. “If I can come back and keep my minutes to a minimum, that would be perfect,” Bryant said when the Lakers were on the road in Washington. This week, Bryant elaborated on the reduced work load, likening his initial foray onto the court to the process that every player goes through in the preseason and “builds to the regular season.”
While fans will be seeing less of Bryant on the court than they’re accustomed to, they’ll see more of Bryant playing a facilitator role, especially as long as Jordan Farmar (hamstring tear) and Steve Nash (nerve root irritation) continue to be sidelined.
“He’s going to have the ball,” D’Antoni said. “So, whenever you have the ball you’re the point guard.”
Bryant said it will be no different than how he played last season when he dished out eight or more assists 23 times and 10 or more assists 11 times.
“It’s being able to facilitate and score when the defense dictates it, so it’s no difference,” Bryant said. “I’d be more of the push man, obviously, just getting up and down. But, honestly it’s no difference than how I played my entire career, really. Just handling the ball, getting us into stuff and pushing it.”
Embracing being a distributor when he returns this season goes hand in hand with Bryant’s own expectations for where his game will be if he is stripped of the athleticism he’s always featured as part of his game. Bryant went as far as to offer up the names of four below-the-rim point guards in Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Gary Payton and Andre Miller as players whose games he could emulate (along with a couple other low-to-the-ground scorers in Larry Bird and Paul Pierce).
Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis, who was on Phil Jackson’s staff when Bryant won championships, said as long as Bryant is a willing passer, L.A.’s equal opportunity offense (nine players average between 8.3 and 14.3 points per game) should thrive.
“Hopefully we don’t change the way that we play,” Rambis said. “[Bryant] just gives us a much greater asset to use. Not only does he occupy his own individual defender, but he’ll occupy two or three other defenders which will help open guys up. Other teams have to game plan for him. So, if the ball continues to move, we’ll get much easier scoring opportunities.”
The knock on Bryant for years has been his reluctance to involve teammates in part because of his belief in his individual ability to get it done on his own. But Bryant said he has already been impressed by the new group (five of the 10 players who play regularly for L.A. are new acquisitions).
“I love their competitive spirit,” Bryant said. “Practices have been really competitive and we’ve really gotten after each other. It fits very well because they’re excellent at moving without the ball and finding cuts and crevices and cracks and have a great deal of speed and athleticism.”
All of that speed and athleticism has the Lakers playing with the league’s fourth-highest pace this season, averaging 100.3 possessions per game, up from 96.8 a year ago.
Can a slowed down Bryant fit that flow?
“We’re encouraging our guys to take the first quality shot but we’re not a running team,” said Rambis. “The pace doesn’t mean that we’re up and down the floor. So, he should be able to, without a problem, fit into the pace with which we play and he should add a lot of quality to that so that our points per possession and the pace that we score within that should go up too.”
D’Antoni only has a handful of practices to go on, but based on Bryant’s performance so far, the coach doesn’t think the five-time champ will curb the rest of the team’s tempo.
“I think he’ll be fine,” D’Antoni said, adding he “didn’t see anything different” with the pace when Bryant was running with the team versus when he was out. “We want to keep our pace up. It helps everybody else.”
That’s precisely what the coaching staff expects Bryant to do as well -- help everybody else, particularly the young players -- just by being the competitor that he is.
“The greatest thing that he provides is an exorbitant amount of confidence,” Rambis said. “He believes so strongly in himself as a championship-caliber player, that that confidence kind of overflows to the rest of the guys on the team. Even the appearances that he’s had out here, the practices that he’s in, the intensity in practice is amped up and that alone should make us a better team if we’re practicing harder and guys are learning to maintain their focus, maintain their intensity and in continuing to develop this ability to work hard and play hard, he’s just going to keep adding to that and push and drive the team.”
Bryant will change things for the 9-9 Lakers, but the change should ultimately be for the better.
“It will be a little bit of an adjustment period like always,” D’Antoni said. “But, it’s going to be good. You’re adding a great piece. So, we’re looking forward to that adjustment.”