HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — As the great Kobe Bryant rescues his flapping No. 24 jersey from all manner of inclement weather with tonight’s triumphant return, are his surprisingly buoyant Los Angeles Lakers really in need of a rescue mission? Or more a celebrated captain to take the wheel?
Staples Center will go goo-goo tonight as Bryant officially begins his 18th season against the wrong-place, wrong-time Toronto Raptors (pregame, 9 E.T., NBA TV). Kobe will be announced to the sell-out crowd and the roof will blow like Mt. Vesuvius. He’ll take his spot around the jump circle and it’ll be so electric in there it’ll feel like the Lakers are back in the NBA Finals, where so many predicted they would be last season before that star-studded roster quickly became as unhinged as characters in a Quentin Tarantino film.
Once the ball is in the air, once the juices start coursing through Kobe’s veins, what happens tonight and over the next 62 games that follow will be as riveting to watch as a Stephen King novel is to read. After all, the king of suspense joined Twitter (@StephenKing) the same day as the Lakers’ dramatic flapping-jersey video revealed Kobe’s return. Nothing in Hollywood is by coincidence, right?
Here’s the thing with Kobe’s return essentially one quarter into the season: For the first time in his career he starts a season a month late, on a team with multiple unfamiliar parts and, most notably, has established something of an identity and definitely a working chemistry without him.
Don’t get that confused with suggesting this team doesn’t need Kobe. That’s preposterous. Kobe’s capabilities coming off a torn Achilles tendon last April, and his adaptation to the team’s style of play, will dictate the level at which this otherwise off-rack roster can truly compete. Without him, as intriguing as they’ve been, the playoffs are as unlikely as Jack Nicholson gifting tonight’s courtside seat to Justin Bieber.
How Kobe chooses to assert himself will be fascinating to watch. Does he acknowledge this season’s progress and work to get his from within the framework and flow of the system, or does he try to strong-arm it?
The Lakers enter tonight’s game against a team Kobe once dropped 81 points on with a 10-9 record compared to 9-10 a year ago with he and Dwight Howard and the once-twinkling images of 70 wins and a championship already extinguished. Collective optimism has replaced pessimism this season as guys named Meeks and Young and Hill and Henry and Farmar have played hard and embraced camaraderie in a way last season’s Lakers team never could — or would.
What have the Lakers become without Kobe?
Surprisingly, an entertaining team whose performances can fluctuate wildly, and, stunningly, a team that is hard to hate, even for the most ardent Lakers haters. They’re playing in the mold of Mike D’Antoni — himself suddenly elevated from the echoes of “We want Phil” chants to early coach of the year consideration. They’re sharing the ball, quickening the pace, hustling and mostly having fun and enjoying each other. They’ve managed to be OK on the road — 4-5 — and hang in enough games to hold up their end of the bargain of hanging near .500 without Kobe despite scoring fewer points than they allow.
No other team in the league has a negative differential and a winning record.
Here’s two key stats that demonstrate D’Antoni’s system at work: The Lakers rank fourth in assists at 24.1 a game (they were 17th last season at 22.2); and they’re third in 3-point percentage at 40.7 (a significant upturn from last season — 35.5 percent to rank 19th) while putting up 26.3 attempts a game, third-most in the league.
Kobe’s buddy Pau Gasol is averaging 3.1 apg along with team highs of 14.5 ppg and 9.8 rpg. Jodie Meeks is shooting 47.3 percent from beyond the arc and averaging 13.5 ppg. Steve Blake is averaging 7.8 apg with 10.2 ppg. Before his injury, bench spark plug Jordan Farmar was dishing out 4.4 apg in 18.9 mpg. Xavier Henry provided an early season boost. Jordan Hill is bringing down 8.5 rpg in 21.6 mpg, including 3.3 on the offensive glass. Nick Young is as swaggy as ever, launching a high rate of bricks in Friday night’s comeback win at Sacramento until tossing in the dagger — a crunch-time scenario he might not see again with the Black Mamba’s return.
No Laker is averaging more than Blake’s 31.8 mpg and 10 are logging at least 17.3 mpg (excluding Steve Nash, who has played in just six games). Last season, Kobe averaged 38.6 mpg, a red-flag number some blamed for his Achilles blowout in his 78th game of the season, but also a number that Kobe, now 35, insisted on playing as the Lakers fought for a playoff spot.
Basically a lot of players are doing a lot of different things pretty well.
So what does Kobe do to make this team, one many pundits predicted would fail to make the playoffs, better? This is truly new — and fascinating — territory for Mr. Bryant.
Apologies, Mr. King, but the suspense is already killing me.