While his return to full action is still a mystery, Kobe Bryant is back on the court. On Wednesday, he did some “light jogging” and some “set shooting” at Lakers’ practice. This is a big step in Kobe’s continued progress, representing another milestone in his recovery and inching him even closer to that point that everyone is waiting for.
So the biggest question will soon be answered (or at least that seems to be the case). But, in a way, we knew that already. With Kobe himself saying he “shattered” the recovery timeline and the reality that he wasn’t going to miss the entire season, the fact that he’d return at some point early in the season was a good possibility (barring any setbacks, of course). The fact that we’re getting closer is just a matter of things progressing as they should
But just because the biggest question will have resolution at some point, doesn’t mean it’s the only question. Right now Kobe isn’t really a part of camp and that absence is influencing things. Don’t take my word for it, take Pau Gasol’s who said that “it’s definitely different” not having Kobe practicing. And while Pau added that the team will be ready for his return, we can’t just act like that’s a certainty.
At media day, Mike D’Antoni was asked about Kobe’s pending return and said the following:
“We’ve got to develop the team and go without him if he isn’t here the first game,” D’Antoni said. “If he is here the second game then you just plug him in. I still don’t know when it is. Since we still don’t have a timetable, we can’t just wait on him.”
D’Antoni has a potentially difficult road to navigate here. Kobe is still the team’s best player and, with that, the center of the team’s universe. He typically sets the tone and drives the mentality of the team. Plus, beyond that, he has also been the player who has dominated the flow of the game on the offensive side of the ball.
As D’Antoni implies, however, the team must start to forge an identity now and plan as if Kobe will not be there. That means putting the ball in the hands of the team’s other playmakers (namely Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and, to a lesser extent Jordan Farmar) and starting to formulate an offensive attack that utilizes the skill sets of these players in ways that maximize their production while also lifting the play of the entire team.
When Kobe does return the question then becomes how to integrate him back into that already forming identity and find ways to maximize his play while also continuing to build on the foundation the team is trying to establish without him. How will Kobe adjust? How will his teammates? How will the D’Antoni? Will the solutions mirror what the team did last season when Kobe took on primary ball handling duties and became fulcrum of the team’s offense? Will it take on a different form?
None of these questions have straight forward answers and all will have to be worked through, on the court, with total buy in from every member of the team. One would hope the transition is smooth and the team can, as Gasol said, be ready for his return by hitting the ground running. After all, adding a talent like Kobe Bryant is benefit, not a hindrance. And I’m sure that will be the case in the long run.
But, as the team starts to lay the foundation of the team they will be while Kobe is on the mend, the questions surrounding his return aren’t really about when but about all the things that come with it.