For Kobe Bryant, he has a huge challenge ahead of him during this upcoming season. To many, he has been in his last playoffs. To others, he has seen his last 20 ppg season. Part of the reasoning behind the uncertainty of Bryant is due to his ripe old age of 36, juxtaposed to the future Hall of Famer having only played six games last season. The more realistic concern over Bryant being capable of returning to the playoffs, let alone winning another championship, is that he no longer has a well-rounded supporting cast of his past years. While it appears unlikely that the Los Angeles Lakers have a possibility of success for the current season, if Kobe Bryant does return to form, he could very well prove his skeptics wrong.
During the Lakers’ media day, Bryant was the main attraction. Instead of focusing first and foremost on the season ahead though, the future Hall of Famer focused more on talking about how he wants to end his career. Derek Jeter retired from the MLB last week, and as such, it may have left Bryant with a new perspective. In many media reports, the franchise player stated that he, like Jeter and Michael Jordan, wants to end his career on his terms. He does not want to be forced out of the league due to injury or otherwise. Instead, he wants to have the ability to leave professional basketball when he is ready.
His statements of admitting that he wants to leave when he is ready brought the confidence in Bryant again. Furthermore, he proclaimed that it is possible that he may play past his current contract extension. It is this that brought the interviews back to his current health, where Bryant believes he does not “see an end to the tunnel” in terms of his current health condition.
Further along in the media day, Bryant went on to say that before all else, he needs to prove to himself that he can play his style of ball. Instead of the typical Bryant, who usually begins the season with the confidence to take on all comers, he has to prove his worth not to the media, not to his team, but to his harshest critic, himself. He is realistic about himself now. He knows that at 36, coming off two intense injuries, that he may be slowed moving forward. Moreover, he knows that the biggest task ahead of him is defense and being able to chase his man. Never being one to submit to a challenge, Bryant is confident in accepting the task. He also showed his resolve by not worrying about his offense. While he may be slowed, he believes he will always be in firm control of what he can do offensively.
The question at hand coming into this season is what Bryant can do. According to his new assistant coach and former teammate, Mark Madsen, the 36-year-old looked like “the old Kobe” in scrimmages. While the jury is still out, if Bryant does make a return to the “old Kobe”, even a modified one, he is one player who can put fear in the eyes of opponents. If he can score 20ppg or more, while also being able to prove his defensive tenacity, the Lakers could surprise the league.
Unfortunately for Bryant, he has to be careful in terms of what he does on the court. Unlike his last full season, he does not have the help he once had. Pau Gasol left Los Angeles for Chicago. Instead, he received a downgrade at power forward in the form of Carlos Boozer (13.7 ppg and 8.3 rpg). Elsewhere on the roster, he has the surging Nick Young (17.9 ppg), who will serve as Bryant’s right-hand man offensively. He also now has a true point guard in Jeremy Lin (11.3 ppg and 4.3 apg), who could have a bounce-back season in 2014-2015, after being relegated to the bench in Houston a year ago. Unfortunately though for Bryant, he does not have much help anywhere else on the roster. Steve Nash (6.8 ppg and 5.7 apg) has shown to be a shell of his former 2-time MVP self by showing that his difficulty of staying on the floor. Jordan Hill (9.7 ppg and 7.4 rpg) did show improvement last season, but it is highly questionable in terms of whether or not he can become a double-double man, like the Lakers want him to be. Beyond those few players, Bryant, alongside new coach Byron Scott, have little depth.
It is due to this little depth that will put significant pressure on Bryant. Scott will have to be careful in this regard. In the past, Bryant has shown he is more than capable of putting a team on his shoulders. The problem is that now Bryant is aging. His body no longer can take the load that it used to. In the past, Bryant was able to play long minutes and through injury, in order to push the Lakers past the competition. If the franchise player does the same this coming season, he will be jeopardizing Los Angeles’ hopes of making the playoffs. Too many minutes will likely result in other injuries for Bryant, either various small ones or another that puts him out the remainder of the season.
Despite Bryant needing to be careful in terms of his playing time, the flipside is that he could have a positive season. He may be playing on one of the worst rosters of his career. However, if Young and, possibly, Lin, Boozer and Hill are able to improve upon their 2013-2014 outings, the Lakers may find success this season, even if it means barely missing out on the playoffs. The problem is they have to not only find an identity, but they need to develop team chemistry quick, after only having a handful of players returning to Los Angeles this season. More than their quality play, the Lakers’ biggest problem will be competing in the Western Conference, where there is a possible 12 other teams who can realistically make an appearance in the playoffs.
For the first time since he became a Laker, there are not many who are confident that Bryant can not only return to form but that his team can make the playoffs. However, someone with the competitive ndrive of Bryant will surely welcome the challenge. Kobe Bryant would love nothing else than to have a return success to the Los Angeles Lakers, which could prove his many skeptics wrong. At the end of the day, as hard as it is to believe, Bryant wants that sixth championship. A surprise return to the playoffs will only help with that possibility down the road, regardless of how out of reach it is at the moment. In order to do so though, he will have to be careful in not forcing himself into retirement early, by not leaving the game on his terms.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey