With contributions by Kanta Ito.
Kobe Bryant officially practiced for the first time this season yesterday, giving the struggling Lakers an emotional boost.
Bryant has increased the intensity of his rehab within the past few weeks, in an attempt to return to the floor as soon as possible. He seeks to help re-energize a current Lakers squad, who just lost a heartbreaker to the Memphis Grizzlies this past Friday.
The Lakers, a subpar 4-7 this season, now must tread water and stay near a .500 winning record until Bryant makes his season debut.
“He got out there today and changed the tone on his first day back with us,” Lakers point guard Jordan Farmar explained to TWC SportsNet Studio Analyst Dave Miller.
Bryant’s return will fill the biggest void for the Lakers this season. Luckily, his new supporting cast should make his return to the floor more rewarding—thanks to the new additions General Manager Mitch Kupchak and VP of Basketball Operations Jim Buss made this offseason, despite facing stringent financial restrictions.
The Lakers no longer need to make Bryant responsible for covering the opponent’s best guard each game.
Young, athletic guards like Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks and Xavier Henry have shown that they can match up with the opponent’s most talented guard this season. Bryant can now feel comfortable in saving his energy for the 4th quarter on the defensive end—an option that did not exist for him last year, due to the overall lack of athleticism and defensive talent in the backcourt.
Offensively, expect Bryant to attack the most from the post, where he can use his variety of post moves and tremendous footwork to create his own shot, similar to the great Hakeem Olajuwon. Bryant’s ability to create shots for himself and his teammates from the post will help ease his return onto the floor.
Better shooters also now surround surround Bryant; since all five opposing defenders now have to account for Bryant every time he possesses the ball, Bryant can help find his teammates wide open shots.
The Lakers are shooting a respectable 40.7% from three-point range this season—a vast improvement from the 35.5% clip from the three-point line last year. This should improve even more, however, with the combination of more open shots from Bryant’s presence and the better overall shooters like Meeks, Steve Blake, Nick Young, and Shawne Williams.
Although Steve Nash currently battles nerve damage in his back, Blake and Farmar can stability give the Lakers stability in the backcourt alongside Bryant. These are two key guys who have gained the trust of Bryant to handle the ball and run the offense from the point guard position.
Nick Young, a SG/SF, also fills a void as a player, other than Bryant, who possesses the skill to create his own shot with confidence. Young will help Lakers’ head coach Mike D’Antoni keep Bryant’s minutes down by default, and prevent situations where Bryant would have to play entire games again.
Jordan Hill, who has practically won some games for the Lakers this year, once again gives the Lakers a tremendous boost of energy from power forward/center position. After coach D’Antoni surprised most fans by inserting him into the starting lineup, Hill has not slowed down—scoring 21 and 18 points in his first two starts with the Lakers.
Most importantly, Hill creates extra possession for the Lakers—averaging 3.2 offensive rebounds per game, despite playing limited minutes so far. Expect Hill to move up to the top 10 in the offensive rebounding category, however, and continue to create extra possessions for the Lakers after moving into the starting lineup.
Finally, let’s not dismiss Pau Gasol yet. Although Gasol currently battles a left foot strain, he still can make a significant impact to this Laker squad. His high basketball IQ to create shot for himself and others in the post, and his ability to rebound the ball, still make him a major key to a successful season. Gasol’s lateral movement and quickness should return as he plays his way into shape and his foot strain improves.
This season, the Lakers have a balance of youthful athleticism and veteran leadership. This team also has tremendous team chemistry, something that makes any team better overall.
As a result, Laker Nation should feel optimistic about the Lakers going forward. Those who believe that Bryant’s game will depreciate have to realize that this is Kobe Bean Bryant.
There is one athlete on this planet with the will, drive, determination, and relentlessness to return to full strength from such a devastating injury. Kobe Bryant is that athlete.
“The enjoyment of the game, the love of it, and the low-hanging fruit of responding to this challenge. It’s right there. It’s easy to get me going,” Bryant recently explained to former teammate Rick Fox in an interview with NBATV.
With Bryant close to leading his squad back into battle again, never count the Lakers out of anything.
Despite the Lakers’ slow start, and having the lowest expectation as a team in years, Bryant still recently told TWC SportsNet commentator Kevin Frazier that he “ain’t worried about nothing.”