Kobe Bryant has announced that he will make his season debut on Sunday (Raptors vs. Lakers, 9:30 ET on NBA TV). Is it too soon? Can he return to his Black Mamba form? How will his comeback impact the Lakers in the playoff chase? Let's explore the possibilities.
1. Your take on the timetable for Kobe's return?
A. Kobe knows best.
B. Kobe needs to take it slow.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: A and B. Kobe knows best, and he is taking it slow. You'll notice that we're closer to the back end of the six-to-nine-month timetable that was initially given for Kobe's return ... about eight months ago. There was a time in Kobe's career when you'd always bet the under on Kobe injury comebacks, but the fact that he didn't rush into a uniform on opening night shows that he's giving this serious injury at this stage of his career the proper respect. To hear him talk with so much detail about the biomechanics of his rehabilitation process shows how in tune he is with his body.
Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop: B. Kobe needs to take it slow. Most players return from severe injuries at the first moment they can make a reasonable case there won't be a setback, but that doesn't mean the healing process is anywhere close to being over. Bryant has a new two-year extension, and maximizing those two seasons will require a strong bill of health. Why risk that between now and April?
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: B. Kobe needs to take it slow. A ruptured Achilles might be the most devastating injury for a player to come back from, particularly for someone with the type of mileage Bryant has accumulated. We saw Chauncey Billups attempt to return from the same injury eight months after surgery, and he shut it down within a week and ended up missing two more months. As long as the Lakers can stay with the pack, Bryant should continue to rehab and get stronger.
Ramona Shelburne, ESPN LA: A. Kobe knows best. If he returns in the next couple of games, Kobe will have returned within eight months of rupturing his Achilles. That's incredibly soon for this type of injury, but it's also later than the ridiculous opening night projections. This tells you that Kobe's pushing things but also that he's being pretty honest with himself about just where he is. As long as he's of that mind, the Lakers should feel comfortable with him making the decision about when to return.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: A. "Kobe knows best" sounds like either a delightful sitcom or cool Nike ad campaign, and it's my choice right here. He's 35 years old; it's not like he's risking his prime. Also, it isn't as though he might derail a Lakers title run. I trust Kobe's judgment on how he wants to go about his final act.
2. Your take on how Kobe will play when he returns?
A. About the same
B. Noticeably different
Adande: A and B. Another hybrid answer: He'll produce familiar results in a noticeably different style. He already has acknowledged he won't be able to do everything he used to. But his fundamentals, footwork and ability to think the game will allow him to be effective with less mobility. With Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar out, the Lakers could use Kobe as a ball handler, but he'd probably be more effective posting up.
Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop: A. About the same. It won't be exactly the same, but Kobe's game is diverse enough to accommodate small shifts. An older scoring guard coming back from a torn Achilles might be inclined to develop his post game. But Kobe is already one of the most effective post-up players in the league. A few of his isolation calls will probably become long shots off the dribble, but the overall distribution of his shot selection may not change much.
Elhassan: B, but it depends on how soon he returns. If he comes back this week, I think we'll see him struggle with conditioning and gaining separation against set defenses. For most players, that would probably mean fewer field goal attempts, but Bryant's footwork and fundamentals will give him opportunities to get shots off versus defensive pressure.
Shelburne: B. Noticeably different. That doesn't mean he'll fall off. But even Kobe has admitted that he may need to change the way he does certain things initially. I expect to see him draw on his skill and savvy to score -- particularly out of the post -- in his first few weeks back as he regains his explosion and athleticism. He'll also have to be more of a facilitator with the Lakers' lack of point guard depth right now.
Strauss: B. Noticeably different. It's the safe choice, because a decline in his play might have happened even without the injury. Time may heal all wounds (see: the Kobe-Shaq feud), but it eventually kills a basketball career. Combine the natural decline of a 35-year-old athlete with the ravages of that athlete tearing his body's largest tendon and, yes, a difference should be noticeable.
3. Your take on Kobe's playing time this season after he returns?
A. Will and should play more than 30 MPG
B. Will but shouldn't play more than 30 MPG
C. Won't and shouldn't play more than 30 MPG
Adande: A. He might start off at 30 minutes a night, but he'll push beyond that as soon as he can. Maybe he'll find a limit at the 34 minutes a game that Phil Jackson used him for in 2010-11, their final season together (which just happened to be the last time Kobe played in every game). Kobe has already admitted that his playing time will be down initially as he tries to return to game shape. It's just hard to imagine him remaining on the bench for too long.
Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop: C. Won't and shouldn't play more than 30 MPG. It goes against our perception of Kobe as pathologically competitive and self-sufficient, but he's also someone who's obsessive about conditioning and recovery. It's hard to see him expending serious exertion during garbage time of a 25-point game in December or January. There might be hubris to Bryant's game between the lines, but when it comes to managing the health of his career, Kobe is a stone-cold pragmatist.
Elhassan: B. Will but shouldn't play more than 30 MPG. As Mike D'Antoni said last season, the only person who controls Bryant's playing time is Bryant, but it would serve the Lakers better if Bryant is able to conserve himself rather than burn out before the All-Star break.
Shelburne: C. Won't and shouldn't play more than 30 MPG. He might play at that rate later this season, but the Lakers have a deep team -- particularly at the shooting guard/small forward position -- and he'll need to build himself back up after missing so much time. I think he'll play 25-30 minutes a game most nights, and more than that occasionally.
Strauss: C. Won't and shouldn't. The league is getting smarter about the negative impact of heavy playing time, and Kobe is too intelligent not to notice. The less Kobe plays, the more likely it is that he'll resemble the Kobe we remember. I expect we'll see a less-is-more approach going forward.
4. Our #NBArank panel predicted the overall quality/quantity of Kobe's contributions would be 25th-best. Your take on what it will be?
A. Better than 25th-best in the NBA
B. About 25th-best in the NBA
C. Worse than 25th-best in the NBA
Adande: A. He'll be in the top 15. It would be hard for any player to be considered one of the 10 most productive players if he misses about a quarter of the season. Now, keep in mind that three of the players ranked ahead of him by #NBArank -- Derrick Rose, Marc Gasol and Deron Williams -- have missed and/or will miss significant time with injuries themselves. But the top dozen or so players in the league are already too firmly entrenched for a latecomer to surpass them, provided they stay healthy.
Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop: B. About 25th-best in the NBA. In other words, there will probably be about 24 players who contribute a sum total more than Bryant will this season. At the end of the season, the 25th-ranked player in overall win shares will contribute in the neighborhood of eight wins. If Kobe plays 1,750 minutes games this season -- a liberal projection -- he'd need to perform at a top-10 level to get there.
Elhassan: B. About 25th-best in the NBA. Through the first 20 games of the season, we've already seen great performances from players like Dirk Nowitzki, Andre Iguodala, Damian Lillard, Jrue Holiday and DeMarcus Cousins ... and they were all ranked lower than 25. At this point, we should be raising a bigger stink about Anthony Davis being ranked 33rd!
Shelburne: A. Better than 25th-best in the NBA. Honestly, I don't think Kobe will want to play if he isn't able to play at an elite level. I don't even think he'll return to the court until he starts feeling like that level is in sight. It might take a month or so to get there, but he won't put himself in position to fall short.
Strauss: C. I'll go "worse than 25th" and hope I'm wrong. Not all injuries are equal. The Achilles tear has derailed many careers before Kobe's. Best of luck to him in overcoming it, but I'm siding with history.
5. The Lakers are tied for 10th in the West. With Kobe, they will finish ...
A. Better than 10th
C. Worse than 10th
Adande: A. Better than 10th. The Lakers have successfully dog-paddled their way around the surface of the playoffs during the first month of the season, which is about as much as could be asked of them. Now they get a guy who can win a game or two a month by taking over in the fourth quarter. Keep in mind that two of the Lakers' current standings-mates, Memphis and New Orleans, will have to play an extended stretch without Marc Gasol and Anthony Davis, respectively, while Kobe works his way back into the Lakers' lineup.
Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop: B. 10th. The Western Conference has been every bit as competitive as anticipated, and even with Bryant playing 30 minutes per game, the Lakers probably won't finish much higher. If it's any consolation, they'd be a strong contender for the third seed in the East.
Elhassan: C. Worse than 10th, but that's more of an endorsement of a tough Western Conference (which might have a 50-win team miss the playoffs this season) than an indictment of the Lakers, who have managed to stay competitive so far. Bryant's return will bring a boost to the offense, but it's hard to see him being a positive on the defensive end, where he was a liability last season with a healthy Achilles.
Shelburne: A. Better than 10th. Well, if they can stay healthy. This week's run of injuries to the backcourt conjured up bad memories from last season, when one thing led to another and all of a sudden half the team was in the training room every day instead of practicing. But if Bryant comes back this week and Nash can get back this month, the Lakers have a chance to climb up, potentially into the playoffs. It may not sound like much, but keeping it around .500 while Bryant was out -- with the second-toughest schedule in the league -- was a solid outcome for this team.
Strauss: C. Worse than 10th. In the East I'd pick them as a playoff lock. Unfortunately for the Lakers (or fortunately, if you're a Lakers fan rooting for a high draft pick), the West is too competitive this season. There just isn't enough defensive talent on this roster for me to go higher than 11th.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
J.A. Adande, Kevin Arnovitz, Amin Elhassan, Ramona Shelburne and Ethan Sherwood Strauss cover the NBA for ESPN.com.
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