How Desperately Do LA Lakers Need A Healthy Kobe Bryant On Opening Night?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 16, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 12: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during a game against the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on April 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Bummer alert: Kobe Bryant may not be on the floor when the Los Angeles Lakers kick off the 2013-14 season Oct. 29.

Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding relayed the latest update on Bryant's status from Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni:

Bryant's absence would be a devastating blow for the Lakers. They need him to be ready for the opener, but probably not for the reasons you're thinking. 

See, Bryant's value to the Lakers this season is largely symbolic. He's viewed by fans across the world as some kind of indestructible basketball deity, destined to sit on the throne forever. If that sounds like hyperbole, consider the uproar over Kobe finishing 25th in ESPN's player rankings.

Things are getting ugly out there as staunch Bryant defenders square off against those who doubt him.

Anyone willing to be reasonable about Bryant's future knows that his run will have to end at some point. If a huge contingent of fans aren't willing to concede that a 35-year-old player with nearly 1,500 games under his belt and a freshly torn Achilles might, in fact, be approaching that end, it's a good sign that there's a little extra significance attached to said player.

If these circumstances aren't enough to get a vast swath of fans to prospectively admit that Bryant is human, none will.

That's a long-winded way of saying that Bryant means something to Lakers fans and the organization that goes beyond rationality. He has a much deeper, more profound significance.

But before getting into the psychological depths of that theory, it's probably best to treat the practical impact of Bryant's opening-night absence first.


Championship Implications

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 21:  Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant laughs with the championship trophy while riding in the victory parade for the the NBA basketball champion team on June 21, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers beat the Boston Celtic
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

We might as well start at the top, right?

Even the most impassioned Lakers loyalists don't believe this year's Lakers are a championship team. So it's hard to make the case that L.A. needs Bryant to be healthy on opening night in order to keep title hopes alive.

That's not a knock on Bryant, who put together one of the most impressive seasons of his career last year. Per, Bryant's 10.9 win shares were the most he'd accumulated in a season since 2008-09.

But even if Bryant returned on opening night and somehow duplicated his remarkable 2012-13 campaign, the Lakers wouldn't come anywhere close to championship contention.

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Dwight Howard #12 and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrate while playing the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center on February 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Remember, L.A. had Dwight Howard last year. And even though "D12" was a largely disengaged, half-healthy locker-room cancer, he was still a statistically dominant player. His departure, and the Lakers' inability to replace him with a similarly impactful player means there's really no way to envision a championship season in Los Angeles.

Maybe the counterargument is that the Lakers were beset by injuries a year ago, and if Bryant could play all season with a healthy Steve Nash and Pau Gasol at his side, the future would be brighter. But this is a remarkably old team that absolutely cannot defend—even if healthy.

The Lakers aren't going to contend for a ring under any circumstances this year. So, from a practical perspective, it hardly matters whether or not Bryant manages to be ready for the first game of the season.


Postseason Hopes

Now we're getting a little warmer.

The Lakers narrowly made the postseason a year ago, largely on the strength of Bryant's heroic efforts down the stretch. His performance was superhuman, and whatever skepticism I'm showing here shouldn't detract from the fact that Bryant played with truly remarkable determination last year.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 12: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers gets injured while driving against Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on April 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowle
Noah Graham/Getty Images

When Nash and Gasol missed games, Bryant stepped up and ran the offense on his own. When Howard's clownish behavior started to tear the team apart, Bryant was the only guy with the stones to speak up—repeatedly.

It's possible that with better team-wide luck on the injury front and a roster that better aligns with D'Antoni's offensive preferences, a healthy Bryant could again make the difference between the lottery and a low seed in the West.

But remember, even if Bryant is healthy enough to go on opening night, there's no guarantee he'll be able to play as effectively as he did a year ago. In addition, it seems like everyone has agreed to forget the fact that Kobe essentially stopped playing defense last year. There should be major concern that he'll be even more limited on that end this season.

It's much easier to argue that the Lakers need Bryant to play on opening night in order to have a chance at the playoffs than it is to talk about his impact on a championship chase, it's still important to retain some long-term perspective.

If Bryant beats the odds and starts the first game of the season, it'll almost certainly be because he pushed himself like a madman to do it. It's not like Bryant has a long NBA future to think about, but it might be best for both him and the Lakers if he sat out long enough to get fully healthy.

Apr 2, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) reacts in the second half of the game against the Dallas Mavericks at the Staples Center. Lakers won 101-81. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

It's uncomfortable to imagine, but there's a strong possibility that a hobbled Bryant could actually hurt the Lakers in the season's first few months by trying to do more than his body will allow. And things might wind up getting even worse in the second half if he breaks down because he returned too soon.

Opening night is important, but in terms of playoff pursuits, Bryant will be of more use to the Lakers if he's healthy in March and April.


The Real Reason(s)

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 27: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers greets fans following his team's victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center on January 27, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Kobe's followers are more devoted than those of any other NBA player. We're talking cult-level stuff here.

To those fans, it's vital that he deliver on elevated expectations by somehow suiting up for the first game of the season.

Crazed fans aside, Kobe also means everything to his team. If you've read this far, you probably realize I don't mean that literally. From a practical standpoint, there's room to question whether he'll be a help or hindrance to the Lakers' on-court performance in the early stages of his comeback.

But the Lakers are a club in need of some kind of boost, some kind of early kick to keep hope alive in a season where expectations are lower than they've been in years.

Maybe Bryant can't affect L.A.'s ability to make the postseason or win a title by playing on opening night, but he can certainly serve as an example of the kind of toughness and heart a so-so team might need in order to maximize its limited potential.

And there's also the battle for Los Angeles to consider.

January 4, 2013;  Los Angeles, CA, USA;    Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) dunks over Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul (3) during the game at the Staples Center. Clippers won 107-102. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA T
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers square off against the Los Angeles Clippers to start the season, and if Kobe isn't on the court for that tilt, it might mark the point at which the Clips take official control of L.A.

Granted, Chris Paul and the Clippers will only retain command over Los Angeles until the next great Lakers dynasty arises (whenever that winds up happening). Let's not kid ourselves; L.A. will always embrace the Lakers over the Clippers as long as the purple and gold are respectable.

But if Bryant's not in the mix from the outset this season, there's a real chance that the Lakers will not only be bad, but also totally uninteresting. If that happens, they'll take a back seat to the Clippers for the first time in decades.

In that sense, the stakes for Bryant and the Lakers could hardly be higher.


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