James Worthy’s challenge for Kobe Bryant: “Can he step back?”

With less than two weeks before Lakers training camp begins, I had an extensive conversation with famed Laker and Time Warner Cable SportsNet analyst James Worthy on the state of the team.

Below is part one of my interview with Worthy focusing on Kobe Bryant and why Worthy believes the Lakers will finish in fifth place in the Western Conference.

Medina: We’ve seen Kobe Bryant fight through injuries, obviously. But this is a different animal. What’s your expectation as far as when he comes back and what he will look like once he heals his Achilles tendon?

Worthy: I remember Dominique Wilkins when he had his Achilles blown. He came back and was pretty effective for a while. With Chauncey Billups, it was tough. I can’t say much about an Achilles [tendon]. I never had it. But I can’t imagine, based on what I’ve seen, a 17-year veteran with that many miles having the season that he had last year. If he can come back and had the season he had last year, wow, last year was an amazing season.

All along, I just thought I hope he can sustain this without getting injured. Kobe is not a human being. He’s an alien. I think he will come back and play well. But it has yet to be seen. I don’t know when he’s going to start. But that’s why I think this blend of other plays will help if they don’t have Kobe. Every time Kobe is absent and he doesn’t have to dominate a game, the team gives a more collective effort and the ball moves a little bit more. There’s more scoring and contributions from others.

Medina: Would you predict Kobe will play in the season opener?

Worthy: I haven’t talked to [trainer] Gary Vitti or anybody. But my personal opinion is Kobe shouldn’t rush it. Kobe doesn’t have one speed, but I personally think he needs to take his time. If he feels anything in his Achilles, he should take his time and let other players develop. That’s what they need. They’ll need other players to develop. He should take his time. I don’t think he should rush it. I know he’s been gradually doing exercises. But I don’t think he’s close to doing anything full contact or anything explosive.

Medina: How do you think Kobe will need to adjust his game?

Worthy: One of the biggest challenges for Kobe this year is can he step back. He’s been in the league for 17 years, has a lot of miles on the bodies and has had a lot of injuries. Can he find a game that will allow other guys to flourish? Then, when you need him, like a Larry Bird or Magic Johnson down the stretch, when you need him, he’ll be more effective. I think that’s the game I forsee for him. I don’t see him dominating and getting 30 points five games a year. I just don’t. It’s going to be tough for Kobe. He only knows one way to play. That’s to dominate.

Any veteran player will tell you that it’s hard. I remember when [former Lakers coach] Mike Dunelavy asked me to come off the bench [in 1990]. That was a sign I was still effective, but not as effective as I was. That was a tough call. Kobe’s going to have to allow Pau and the younger players to step up and get them ready. So when they come to the playoffs, they’ll be ready. That’s why I think they’ll be dangerous. That’s the style D’Antoni would like to have anyway. But it remains to be seen how that’s going to unfold.

Medina: For the past two years, Kobe and both Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni all said they’d like to get his minutes down. That never happened. I know last year they were trying to get to the playoffs, but Kobe’s minutes were still high even in instances when it could’ve been limited. What do you think it’s going to take for Kobe’s minutes actually to go down?

Worthy: It’s going to take somebody who can produce off the dribble and someone who can create their own shot. Kobe, at times, is the only one who can do that. They could go into Pau, but when it came to creating a shot, the offense just never was in gear. D’Antoni’s offense was never there. It was so stymied that I thought it was easy to guard. It was very easy to defend the pick and roll. The Lakers always seemed to have the ball in the last seven seconds, and the only one who could create a shot was Kobe. So I think with guys like Farmar, going to Pau and Johnson, they’ll need somebody else to create a shot. If that’s not the case, he senses that kind of stuff. His innate personality will take over. It will take a huge effort on the coaching staff to create an offense so that everyone is involved.

Medina: What’s your overall outlook on the Lakers this season?

Worthy: I’m excited about this year. I’m not predicting an NBA championship. I’m not predicting a Western Conference championship. But what I am predicting is there’s not going to be a lot of expectations on the outside. The Lakers’ front office, owners, players and coaches know what to expect. But there’s not going to be a ton of expectations like it was last year with Dwight [Howard] coming in and all the All Stars that they had. I also think they’re going to be healthier. They can’t have a season like they had last year. That was just a plethora of injuries.

I think Pau [Gasol] is going to be healthier. Steve Nash is going to be healthier. He’s still a little older. But I think that blends in. I’m noticing they’re trying to blend in players with some of these vets. Every season that you’ve seen San Antonio – they’re getting a little older. They always blend in a Green or a younger player. Mike is finally going to get a full training camp with his coaching staff. I predict they’ll be a dangerous team. Everybody is looking at Oklahoma, Chicago, Indiana and other teams. But the Lakers will be right there. I think they can get a 4th seed.

Medina: A 4th seed?

Worthy: I really do. They’ll be a healthy team that will blend in with some younger players with a full year of training camp. With D’Antoni, maybe there would’ve been things he would’ve done differently. He’s going to fix that. Kurt Rambis, coming in and being a defensive coordinator, I think they’re going to be better than people think they are.

Medina: Who in the West would you have above the Lakers?

With [Russell] Westbrook coming back, he’s going to make Oklahoma City really good. San Antonio is going to be good again. I think Golden State is going to be good. I think the Lakers could fight Denver in there for the 4th seed. That’s the way I see it. Denver is awfully good. But I think the Lakers with Johnson and Jordan Farmar, they will create some defensive stability that I think they need. Then I’m looking for guys like Jordan Hill to do his thing. I don’t know the status on Pau and Kobe, but collectively I think they will be a dangerous team.

Medina: Where are the Clippers in that mix?

Worthy: I made a big mistake. That’s the team to beat in the West. I still think the Lakers will get a 4th or 5th spot. A lot of people are saying 7th or 8th, but I’m being a little bit more optimistic. The Clippers, with Doc Rivers, are going to be the team to beat in the West.

Medina: Are you thinking Clippers, Thunder, Spurs and then Lakers?

Worthy: Golden State is awfully good. So I’m putting the Lakers in the 5th.

Medina: How far do you see them getting to the playoffs if they get to that position?

Worthy: I may be basing it on my whole experience, but in the playoffs, I think they’ll be even better. They’ll have the experience. That’s where they make their run. That’s where Kobe really leaves his mark. He’ll show more there than in the regular season. They can be a dangerous playoff team with their experience and past history.


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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at mark.medina@dailynews.com