Below is the first in a series previewing the storylines surrounding each player on the Lakers’ roster for the 2013-14 season.
1. How healthy will Kobe Bryant become this season? Nothing epitomizes the Lakers’ uncertainty more than Bryant’s recovery from a torn left Achilles tendon. Of course, accounts suggest Bryant’s done everything imaginable to stay on top of his rehab. So much that he may play in the Lakers’ season opener Oct. 29 against the Clippers. Even if he has proven time and again that he has the mental and physical makeup to tackle injuries, Bryant’s handling an injury that can’t be alleviated through sheer will.
2. Will Bryant successfully change his game? Lakers fans had fun while it lasted, but don’t expect Bryant to throw-down any more high-flying dunks anytime soon. Instead, Bryant will likely rely more on his footwork, post skills and mid-range game to ensure still scoring at an elite level. Bryant’s game primarily centered on those aspects in his last season under Phil Jackson because of a surgically repaired right knee that still required him around-the-clock treatment. So that part shouldn’t be much of an adjustment.
It also will seem secondary for Bryant to rely more on his front-court players in Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol. Bryant and Gasol became an unstoppable duo when the Lakers forward was featured as the second offensive option during his first three seasons with the Lakers, a staple that ensured two NBA titles and three Finals appearances. With Gasol frustrated over a demoted role last season, Bryant went out of his way to support him and ensure he received better looks. But it still remains unseen to what degree Bryant will reduce his thirst for scoring and tendency to carry the load when the Lakers experience some adversity.
3. Will the Lakers actually limit his playing time? For the past two seasons, coaches Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni talked a good game in reducing Bryant’s minutes. But they never backed those words up with action. Instead, both coaches relied on Bryant heavily in hopes he would bail the Lakers out of ugly situations.
D’Antoni already saw that plan blow up in his face when Bryant’s miraculous play toward the end of the season halted with a season-ending left Achilles injury. But the Lakers’ coach can’t afford to take an approach this year. One, Bryant likely won’t be physically as capable in replicating the 38 minutes he averaged for the past two years. Secondly, the Lakers on paper have more options on the wing to reduce such a load, including Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Jodie Meeks. And lastly, the Lakers’ heavy reliance on Bryant won’t lead the Lakers to an NBA title no matter how well he plays.
No doubt, Bryant will still need to carry these Lakers. But it won’t be healthy either short-term or long-term if Bryant’s during so with the load he has carried on his shoulders time and time again.
4. Will the Lakers’ supporting cast successfully carry Bryant’s burden? On paper, the Lakers have some qualities that suggest Bryant can afford to lighten his workload. Steve Nash can both run the offense and hit outside shots. Dwight Howard’s departure should give Gasol more opportunities to excel in the post. Chris Kaman’s ability to play a stretch four should complement Gasol’s game well. Young has thirst for scoring. Johnson has potential to defend on the wing. Meeks has a few break-out games from three-point range in him.
Still, here’s the unsettling reality. The Lakers became worse with the departures to Howard and Metta World Peace, a season in which Bryant’s high efficiency only made the team barely eligible for the playoffs. Training camp and presumably less drama without Bryant and Howard at odds could lead to better chemistry. Yet, there are still variables that could lead the Lakers unable to provide Bryant the necessary support.
The verdict remains out on whether Nash and Gasol will become healthy from their respective hamstring and knee injuries. Gasol and Kaman are proven post players, but will D’Antoni truly set up his offense to maximize their size? Will Young just wind up stepping on Bryant’s toes with his high-volume shooting. Will Johnson continue to remain a draft lottery bust? Will Meeks’ streakiness from long distance persist? It’s not out of the realm of possibility that some if not all of these worst-case scenarios happen.
5. How will Bryant lead? Bryant’s evolved in recent seasons where he’s balanced showing more patience while also maintaining a high-wired work ethic. Bryant appears calculated in his approach. But with the Lakers likely facing a challenging just to make the playoffs, Bryant will likely be tested early on how long he keeps that patience.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org