And hopefully, a look ahead as well.
It feels like about 1976 since Kobe Bryant last missed a game due to injury, but in reality, it's been a still-impressive Dec. 8, 2006. And upon returning -- oddly enough, from a sprained ankle-- in a 106-99 win over the San Antonio Spurs, Kobe barely missed a beat over 39 minutes.
34 points on 13-of-25 shooting. Eight rebounds. A quartet of makes from behind the arc. Three steals. An assist. Very little to sneeze at it.
For that matter, his teammates' contributions required no "Gesundheit."
Lamar Odom fell one assist shy of trip-dubbing 18 points and 11 rebounds. Luke Walton scored 17 points. Double-digit scoring was spread out among the remaining starters, as Kwame Brown chipped in 11 while doing his part to limit Tim Duncan to just nine shots and Smush Parker added another 10 (plus three steals). A very young Andrew Bynum notched six points and eight rebounds and a rookie Jordan Farmar dished four assists, both playing off the bench in under 20 minutes. And as described in our postgame report from the "old" blog, terrific D all around, highlighted by a third quarter Odom deemed "the best defensive quarter that I've ever played as a Laker."
Also impressive? The 106-95 win against Atlanta two days prior sans the Mamba's services, also secured through team-wide contributions.
Walton (25 points on 10-of-13 shooting), Mo Evans(22) and Farmar (15) established career-highs in scoring. Kwame's 13/7/7 line was certainly eye-opening. And while LO only contributed six points, seven assists and 15 rebounds offset that tally on a night where scoring was well covered.
Yes, they beat a fairly unimpressive Hawks squad (8-9 entering Staples, 4-5 on the road). Then again, this crew of Lakers, despite a hot start, eventually revealed itself not all that great, either. An argument can be made one victory with Kobe injured (or even going 3-2, between the season opener and follow up won as Kobe recovered from knee surgery and the pair lost while serving suspensions) was a bigger achievement than the defending champs holding down the fort to a 4-1 finish.
In any event, the last time Bryant nursed an injury played out in similar fashion to these previous weeks. Nobody "saved the day." Everyone stepped up to create good fortune. In 2010, Gasol, the current #2 behind Kobe, certainly stepped up his game, but more defensively (two games with 19 rebounds and five blocks) than scoring, which often wasn't as smoothly efficient as we've come to expect. Ditto the rest. Odom. Ron Artest. Shannon Brown. Derek Fisher. Farmar. Even Sasha Vujacic. Everyone found ways to contribute on a semi-to-regular basis, with the principle players typically steady.
Along these lines, I'm hoping Kobe's return maintains the pattern of balance established in the victory against the Spurs back in 2006, and said pattern remains more consistent over the course of the next 26 regular season games. The Lakers play best when balanced and the ball touches a variety of hands throughout possessions, which hasn't always been the case this season. That process starts with everyone on the same triangular page, remaining within the offense as much as possible while working inside-out, and keeping a patient eye out for the open man.
It also requires Kobe's willingness to spread-the-wealth and exercise good judgment in"takeover" mode (particularly, well before the fourth quarter). The other 12 Lakers take their cues from Kobe and nobody is more singularly capable of setting a tone. But don't think I'm putting this entirely in Kobe's lap. It's tantamount the supporting cast protect this established balance and play in a way that demands it. Kobe screaming for the ball sometimes must be ignored if someone else has a better shot or matchup. And of course, opportunities need to be cashed in on a reasonably realistic basis.
Obviously, there will be "exception" games, whether because guys simply aren't feeling it or Kobe truly is, especially in a blatant mismatch working wildly in his favor. For that matter, I'm not claiming it's problematic if Kobe takes the most shots. That's what I'd expect and I'm not asking for (or even wanting) literally equal distribution. There's no call here for "socialist" basketball, should Rush Limbaugh or the like be reading this post.
Besides, the need for balance isn't just a matter of creating an offense more difficult to defend, allowing everyone to remain in the game's flow, or generally creating better shots subsequently allowing for more prepared and organized defense (although these factors certainly do count and often are the result).
It's a matter of utilizing and getting the most out of teammates, plus making them accountable. Raising personal involvement to raise energy to raise the level of performances to raise the Lakers' degree of difficulty in beating. I've heard nearly every Laker at some point talk about how sharing the ball tends to kick the D into another gear, because everyone remains so dialed in and empowered. A group effort creates this mindset.
And more importantly, a singular effort often kills it.
Will moving the ball around ALWAYS create a win? No, but at the same time, neither will Kobe, arguably the game's best player, in "iso" mode over large chunks of a game. No approach is foolproof. But while remaining fluid towards the game's natural developments, in terms of an overall approach, you gotta play the odds.
Between what we've seen over the last few years and the consensus of quite literally every scout or coach I've ever spoken with, the Lakers are much scarier when Kobe involves teammates vs. when he goes off for 40+ and everyone else watches, often confused about what to do. And despite popular opinion, Kobe as a "facilitator" doesn't mean Kobe not being "aggressive." By definition, every time Kobe steps on the court, he's aggressive. He just may not be looking to score, come hell or high water, on every possession. But he remains deadly, particularly when he's giving the ball up to either get it back or place it in the hands of players who've proven worthy.
Those are the odds I'm most comfortable riding out.