Bryant's Return Unknown
The biggest question for the Lakers entering training camp -- when will Kobe Bryant return from his Achilles rehabilitation -- remains the biggest question with just one game left in the preseason.
After three-and-a-half weeks, the answer remains entirely unclear.
Here's what we know: Bryant continues to run, but not sprint, and has been doing some set shooting without jumping. He has not participated in any basketball drills to this point.
Now, when the Lakers were in Beijing and Shanghai (Oct. 11 – 18), Bryant began to ramp up his running and try to test his Achilles a bit. But since then, he's had to hit the pause (or at least slow motion) button.
"I was cranking it up the entire time I was in China," he said after Thursday's practice. "I’ve scaled back since to let it heal up more and to give a little more flexibility to it, but it feels good to run and break a sweat by running."
The 18-year veteran is the first to reveal that patience has never been his best or favorite virtue, making the process difficult.
"The challenge is right in front of your face," he said. "You have to really restrain yourself to not get out there.
"I try not to pay attention to it too much. It’ll get to you a little bit. It’ll make you a little impatient. When you hear the doubt and: ‘Will I be able to come back?’ It’s not even: ‘Will I be able to come back and play well.’ It’s more like: ‘I won’t be able to come back and play well.’ When you hear those things, you want to push and come back and play right away to shut a lot of people up. You have to be patient, rest, relax and come back when you’re ready."
Few are closer to Bryant than Pau Gasol, whose partnership delivered three straight trips to the Finals and two titles, bringing a highly-developed degree of mutual understanding. Yet … the Spaniard can't know, either.
"I think he has a big desire of coming back, but understands there's a few steps he needs to take in order for him to come back, and I don't think he's taken those steps yet," said Gasol. "So let the rehab and progress develop on its own, and he'll come back when he's going to come back. Whether that's in two weeks, three weeks, a month, two months, who knows?"
Coach Mike D'Antoni has acknowledged that Bryant's so central to what the Lakers do and what they'll be that it's difficult to know how different things will look when he does return. But when prompted to reveal the biggest difference between this season's team and that of last year -- Bryant's health aside -- D'Antoni's answer was simple.
"We're more athletic," he said.
"It means the areas we were weak at last year in terms of creating turnovers and getting easy baskets and transition defense, we should be strong in," Bryant revealed. "
The additions of Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson, Nick Young and Xavier Henry instantly account for the increased athleticism, and have helped the Lakers cause around 20 turnovers per game in the preseason after averaging only 12.8 last year. But what could be more relevant to actually producing wins may be less of a tangible change.
"We’re more eager to have a better chemistry so we have to turn that into good stuff," said D'Antoni. "Obviously we have to get Kobe back, Steve Nash needs to stay healthy and Pau Gasol needs to have a great year. If those things come around, we can be better than last year."
"It’s just really in how the pieces come together," added Bryant. "It’s really about that chemistry, more so than anything else and having great communication with each other and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each other. Chemistry is always the biggest thing. It’s always the most important thing. If the chemistry is not there, no matter how much talent you have, it’s going to be a struggle."
A lack of chemistry was an issue raised for much of the 2012-13 season, particularly before the 28-12 close to the regular schedule, as Bryant addressed when asked about current Rockets center Dwight Howard.
"We saw different ways of going about leading this team," he explained. "Dwight wanted to do it one way, which he felt like it was effective and I wanted to do it another way, so it was just constant tension. In the second half of the season, everything was able to fall in line and we wound up making a pretty good run at it. I think Pau stepping in and taking a significant load of the offensive responsibility was a big thing for us as well. It wound up getting Dwight a lot of easy ones and Pau got a lot of easy baskets for everybody else and things kind of just fell in place and we were able to get into the playoffs."
In seven preseason games, the Lakers (3-4) have used chemistry and athleticism to hold third quarter leads in each contest, and the first and second units all come out in the black in terms of plus/minus. Nash not being fully healthy – and sitting out the second half of several games – is one issue, but Bryant's eventual return remains question No. 1.
"I’m thinking about getting as healthy as I can as quickly as possible to come back and try to help us make some noise," Bryant concluded.
Only time will tell when "as quickly as possible" will be.