Biggest Reasons Every NBA Fan Should Be Thrilled About Kobe Bryant's Return
Finally, some good news.
Kobe Bryant hasn't been in hiding since rupturing his Achilles last April, but updates on his progress have alternated between plentiful, Delphic and misleading. Covert trips to Germany meant both something and nothing. Footage of him running was cause for joy and skepticism. No news was great and terrifying at the same time.
After seven months of rehabilitating a torn Achilles tendon, Kobe Bryant finally returned to practice with the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
Bryant had been gathering momentum with weeks of increased running, shooting and basketball-related activities that culminated with him rejoining the Lakers on the practice court on Saturday morning.
There remains no target date for his impending return, and Lakers.com's Mike Trudell says he participated in only light, five-on-zero drills. But still, a practicing Kobe is a practicing Kobe. If that's not enough to appease your need for hope, though, Kobe himself maintains he's recovering well.
"I feel like I'm ahead of schedule," Kobe told former teammate Rick Fox in an interview for NBA TV, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "If there was a playoff game tonight, I'd play. I'd play. I don't know how effective I'd be, but I would play."
Kobe. Playing. Hope. The three words go hand-in-hand. It may not seem like much, but that's what the latest developments are—hope.
Hope for the Lakers, hope for basketball fans in general.
Hope that more than seven months after suffering a devastating injury, Kobe is on his way back. Finally.
It's Been Too Long
When's the last time you saw Kobe play basketball—meaningful basketball—in a Lakers uniform? April, back when Dwight Howard still looked like an oversized banana gone bad in his purple and gold jersey.
Kobe has already missed more than 10 games for the first time since 2004-05, when he was absent for 16. We've grown accustomed to seeing him on the court, draining jumpers and savoring the sweat on his jersey.
Frankly, it's been weird not seeing him play. I liken it to the feeling of finding out your best friend thinks it's all right to wear white after Labor Day. Simply bizarre.
Still unable to suit up and play–unless it was a playoff game—Kobe's absence has made our hearts grow fonder, more grateful of the work horse he's always been.
Love him or hate him, fans can appreciate his diligence and should be relieved to know his win-championships-or-die-trying attitude will return to the floor soon enough.
Stability in a Time of Chaos
It's not that the Lakers have been terrible—it's that they've been maddening.
Good wins, bad losses, missed shots by Nick Young, nifty dimes by Pau Gasol, explosive drives from Xavier Henry—they've been everything you could expect from a Mike D'Antoni-coached squad devoid of a definitive superstar.
Kobe's return gives Los Angeles that dignitary, an identity neither Gasol nor Steve Nash can provide.
Nash is still injured, Gasol has struggled as the focal point of opposing defenses, and Magic Mike is even on record as calling Jordan Hill the team's best player. Craziness.
Will Kobe's return put an end to the madness? Nothing's for certain at this point in time, but one thing's for sure: He, not Hill, is the best chance they have.
Playoffs Still in Reach
Thanks to a handful of underwhelming starts in the Western Conference, the Lakers aren't beyond clinching a playoff berth.
Eleven games into the season, the Lakers are only 2.5 games back of the eighth-place Dallas Mavericks. Assuming that gap doesn't widen and Kobe's return isn't delayed much longer, their current streak of eight straight postseason appearances has the opportunity to be extended.
Playing without the injured Nash doesn't favor the Lakers. No one knows which version of Kobe we'll see upon return, either. An uptick in production from Young and Gasol will be essential as well.
But those bottom-three spots in the playoff picture are exceedingly vulnerable. The Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves seem like the real deal on any given night. On others, they play like fringe-playoff teams.
At minimum, that eighth and final spot is up for grabs. The Phoenix Suns are toeing the line of tankers gone wrong, the Denver Nuggets are wildly inconsistent and depleted up front, the Dallas Mavericks are an enigma, and the Memphis Grizzlies defense has been shockingly mediocre.
Inserting Kobe into the lineup gives the Lakers a viable go-to scorer. No one on the team is currently averaging more than 13.2 points per game, an alarming statistic the Mamba can change.
When your leading scorer is Jodie Meeks, the playoffs aren't an option. When it's a 35-and-still-shamelessly-shooting Kobe, well, anything's possible. And increased possibilities in Los Angeles make for more compelling basketball all around the league.
Even those outside of Los Angeles should be dying to know what comes next for the Lakers this season.
Will they make playoffs? A lottery appearance? Is it possible they could tank?
The latter appears impossible with a healthy Kobe, or even a Kobe sitting on the bench. Picturing the look on his face once he realized the Lakers were deliberately being noncompetitive sends a tremor down the back of my spine. I also imagine he could be seen outside the Staples Center, heading an angry picket line, death-staring down the arena in protest.
"Honestly, it sets a bad precedent for your team culture," Kobe said of tanking in a recent interview with Jim Rome on Jim Rome on Showtime, via Lakers Nation's Corey Hansford.
Although the postseason is still in reach, we don't know if the Lakers will make a push for that last spot. Beneath the rotational chaos and the prospect of them fighting for a playoff slot is who the Lakers really are. Until now, we haven't been able to assign them an identity. Not without Kobe.
Once he returns, we'll get a better idea of who this team is, what it'll be playing for and whether Kobe will be seen smiling or pouting into the spring.
Something to Prove
Forget the playoffs. Never mind the Lakers' ceiling with a healthy Kobe. Table any and all anticipation facing a Mamba-Swaggy P pairing.
Kobe has something to prove. Again. Despite his knack for proving folks wrong, optimism is wavering in certain circles.
ESPN placed Kobe at No. 25 in their NBA player rank, down 19 spots from No. 6 in 2012. This came after they predicted his Lakers would finish 12th in the Western Conference, too. And it came well after Howard bolted for supposedly greener pastures, an unprecedented move, considering how storied the Lakers franchise is.
In typical Mamba fashion, Kobe responded with defiant tweets and Twitter avatars, going as far to suggest that anyone who has him as the league's 25th-best player should be drug tested. Problem is, it's been all talk. That's all he's been able to do—defy his critics from afar.
Actually playing allows him ample opportunity to exceed expectations. To show why his critics have been sleeping on him and/or enjoying too much off-court fun with J.R. Smith. To help the Lakers move on from Howard's departure once and for all.
To show the world, a majority of which is waiting with bated breath, who Kobe Bryant still is.
Plenty of superstars are slated to hit free agency this offseason when the Lakers are projected to have cap space. Maybe you've heard.
Los Angeles' ability to lure and subsequently pay free agents has always been tied to Kobe, who is set to hit free agency himself. Proving to the league that he can still play will go a long way in any Lakers sales pitch that luminaries like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony will potentially sit through.
More importantly, Kobe's production levels will help determine how much cash the Lakers have to spend this summer.
Jim Buss, Los Angeles' executive vice president of basketball operations, previously said the Lakers won't allow Kobe to hit the open market, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne. When the Mamba finally settles into the rotation and it becomes clear what type of player he is, contract negotiations can gain serious traction. If the Lakers know how much they'll be paying Kobe or how much they'll need to give him over the summer, they'll be able to formulate a more concrete plan of action moving forward.
Will they have the money to pay LeBron or 'Melo? Could they possibly afford both?
His arrival could provide the Lakers a timely answer to both, serving as a nice free-agency primer that won't only impact Purple and Gold, but the entire NBA, like only Kobe's return could.