“When you lose against the worst teams in the league, you got to ask yourself why and, kind of, what does that make you?”
Pau Gasol uttered those now infamous words after the Lakers lost to the lowly Magic last Friday. He wasn’t sugarcoating, he was brutal, but most of all he was truthful. The Los Angeles Lakers are currently experiencing the worst season they have had in almost two decades. They are tied for the worst record in the Western Conference at 16-30, and they are clearly one of the worst teams in the league.
To be fair to Los Angeles, had they been healthy all season with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, and Xavier Henry not spending more time on the trainer’s table than the court, then they could be in a much better position. The fact that Pau Gasol, Wesley Johnson, and Chris Kaman have battled sporadic injuries can’t go unmentioned, either.
This isn’t part of the script. After missing the first 21 games of the regular season, Kobe Bryant was supposed to return on a white horse and average 27 points per game, and take this bunch of misfits to the playoffs. Well, here we are on January 30th, Kobe Bryant has played just six games, and he has scored a total of 83 points.
Bryant fractured his lateral tibial plateau (knee) on December 19th against the Grizzlies, and has been out since. The original timetable was six weeks, and if you do the math, that would mean he should return today. News broke on Tuesday that Kobe is expected to miss between two weeks and a month, which means he could return right before March.
I could show you the numbers of how the Lakers are playing without him, I could show you how the stats were with him in those six games, but it would be a waste. The Lakers are bad, but that isn’t a bad thing. They might be banking on cap space and free agency, but Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss wouldn’t be in bad position if they ended up with Dante Exum, Andrew Wiggings, Jabari Parker, or Joel Embiid.
So, since the Lakers are bad, and they have no hope for the playoffs, should Kobe Bryant return this season?
Yes, and it shouldn’t even be a debate.
The Lakers signed Kobe to a two-year contract extension that will make him the highest paid player through his 20th season in the NBA. He will pass Kevin Garnett for most money earned in terms of salary, and the Lakers made it known that their eggs still sit in his basket. You can scoff at the contract all you want, but what’s done is done, and it’s time to move on.
This is a lost season, but there is still one thing the Lakers can accomplish. If Kobe can come back in late February and join a healthy Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, then the Lakers can show little flashes of hope. It remains unlikely that Pau Gasol and Steve Nash will even be on the team next season, and even with them this year they could lose a lot, but it shows that Jim Buss tried. Kobe is an ultra-competitive guy, and his will to return is higher than most could even imagine. So, the Lakers should give him a month and a half to show the fans that he isn’t going away.
When Bryant returned in December, the Lakers still lost. The team was going through an adjustment period, and the same applies to his second return. If fans (and Magic Johnson) think they should sit him for the rest of the season because it could compromise their chances at a high draft pick, then they need not worry because they will still be bad. If they think he shouldn’t return because of the risk of re-injury, then they should remind themselves that if Kobe gets reps, then he could be less rusty at the beginning of his second-to-last season.
Bryant could use this time to figure out what his body still has left, and give him time to adjust to what he can do. It can also show potential future Lakers what they would be joining if they sign with the Lakers this summer. All these things show why Bryant should return, but most importantly, it can serve as one last reminder of once was.
The Lakers have been successful since Bryant was drafted in 1996, but things are different. Jerry Buss has passed away, his often maligned son is in charge, and there is much uncertainty in Laker Land. Yes, the Lakers have cap space, but who can they really get? LeBron James isn’t heading out west, and GM Mitch Kupchak will have to pull off some miracles to bring in top tier talent. You can’t say that Jim Buss didn’t try. After bringing in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard last season, most experts and fans picked them to win the title, and praise was coming in from all angles. Now that Howard is gone, Nash is injured, and the Lakers are starting Kendall Marshall, it seems easy to criticize. Bringing Kobe Bryant back for one more stretch will give fans something to cheer for again. It will be a symbol of what the past was, and show that Buss will keep trying.
Kobe Bryant is the Lakers and the Lakers are Kobe Bryant. If you hold him out for the rest of the season then you take away the one thing fans have to cheer for. The future is muddy and clouded for Los Angeles, so they need their hero to come back and show them that there is hope for the future, even if it’s minuscule.
Get well soon, Kobe.