Sunday night, Kobe Bryant will take the floor for the Lakers in what will be, without question, one of the loudest moments Staples Center has seen not involving streamers falling from the ceiling and the league running yellow ropes around the court. As J.A. Adande noted for ESPN.com, the trappings of Kobe Return Fever have been about as subtle as a Ziggy Stardust concert:
“It’s reached preposterous proportions, hasn’t it? The buzz that started with his first practices, prompting a Los Angeles sports radio station to run ads paying tribute to the player referred to simply as “Him.” The overly dramatic Facebook video with the grammatically nonsensical “Seasons of Legend” title, followed by computer-generated images of the golden No. 24 jersey buffeted by wind, rain and snow. The eager anticipation of his return, as if Mission Control was establishing contact with the first astronaut to make it through re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. And the fact Kobe’s return can generate those absurdities is what makes it so wonderful.”
Because we’ve all — fan, player, and pundit alike — for completely obvious reasons spent so much time looking forward to this moment, Sunday’s game feels in many ways like a conclusion. A return to normalcy. Kobe is back, and the Lakers can go on being the Lakers. This, of course, is completely inaccurate. Move back even a little and it’s clear Sunday is just one more step in Kobe’s comeback. Physically, he’ll be back on the floor, but we don’t know yet when Kobe Bryant returns. Or if he will, or what exactly it’ll look like if/when he does. Even Bryant concedes post-Achilles things will change. Doesn’t mean he won’t be effective, just that he’ll be different, whether obviously or in ways more subtle.
But while nobody likes looking back to last year, L.A.’s experience with Dwight Howard drives home an important point about Sunday’s game, and all the ones coming after. When the Lakers acquired Howard, they thought he might not play until January. Instead, he was there opening night. Unfortunately, even while intellectually most people understood what Dwight was trying to overcome and that it would take time, too many people confused his presence with his return. Dwight was on the floor, but he wasn’t back.
Kobe, wisely, has talked about restricting minutes and allowing himself to miss games down the road if the need arises. The larger point he wants to prove is that a 35-year old player, if he works relentlessly enough, can return from an injury that might normally end a career and still perform at a high level, not to prove he can return and perform like an MVP from Day 1.
This is going to take some time, and it won’t always look pretty. It won’t be a seamless re-entry into an offense that has been happily egalitarian with plenty of ball movement. Defensively, I think we’re all a little curious to see how Bryant performs over time, given how shoddy his work has been at points over the last couple seasons. Long term, the Lakers are obviously a better team with Kobe, but in the short term the disruption could lead to mixed results.
The good news: Let’s say it takes a while for Kobe to round into form, or for the Lakers go figure out how things function with him on the court as he does. Does it really matter? It’s not like the Lakers are one Kobe away from elite status in the West. Making the playoffs will still be tough. Advancing in them a serious long shot. Not that there isn’t anything at stake (like the final two years of Kobe’s career, his legacy, L.A.’s chances of again contending for a title with Bryant as a leader, and about 48.5 million other things), but the relatively low stakes of wins and losses this year means Bryant doesn’t have to press. He can do this the right way.
And the rest of us can watch it all unfold over weeks and months. How does he adapt? What level does he reach, and how does he get there? What concessions is he willing to tolerate? Kobe is back, but when does he truly return?
The next two-plus seasons of Kobe Bryant have the potential to be his most fascinating, which is saying something, no question.