Around the NBA: Will Kobe Bryant’s return cause shake-up the Western Conference?


(Associated Press)

It appears Christmas will come a bit early for the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant will make his season debut Sunday against the Toronto Raptors after tearing his Achilles’ nearly eight months ago.

In his absence, the Lakers went 9-9 through their first 18 games and found most of their most production off the bench. Steve Nash continues to battle injuries and Pau Gasol has struggled to find his rhythm, shooting a career-low 42 percent from the field.

Now, with their most productive reserve  — Jordan Farmer — headed for the injured list for four weeks with a torn hamstring, the Lakers welcome back one of the most decorated players in franchise history with hopes of making their 61st playoff appearance.

Needless to say, having the fourth-best scorer in NBA history will boost the Lakers’ chances in the tough Western Conference. What’s more, Bryant averaged a career-high six assists in his first year in Coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense last season, while still averaging 27.3 points per game. Bryant’s ability to create opportunities for himself and his teammates will vastly improve a starting lineup that’s struggled to jell.

With the Lakers featuring seven new players on its roster this year, forming chemistry with Bryant could take some time. While Bryant is bent on winning a sixth NBA title, he also returns with something to prove as many wonder how effective the 35-year-old can be coming off of his first major injury. As a result, there could be nights where Bryant is more focused on racking up his scoring numbers.

Currently, the Lakers are tied with Memphis and New Orleans for the 10th spot in the Western Conference, just behind the surprising Phoenix Suns (10-9) and Golden State (11-8). Portland, San Antonio and Oklahoma City have distanced themselves from the pack as the conference’s top three teams.

Aiding the Lakers are the injuries to Memphis all-star Marc Gasol (out three to four weeks with an MCL sprain) and Pelicans rising phenom Anthony Davis (out four to six weeks with a broken hand). But in the Western Conference, where all but three of the 15 teams possess a record of . 500 or better, making up for ground lost during Bryant’s absence and now, his transition back into the lineup, is a tall task.

What’s more, the Lakers have struggled defensively this season, allowing 102.9 points per game, good for 28th in the NBA. Bryant has already admitted he won’t be able to do everything fans have grown accustomed to see him do during his Hall of Fame career, and that likely includes serving double-duty as a lockdown defender and fourth-quarter offensive hero.

It’s anybody’s guess as to how Bryant will perform when he returns to the floor, which makes the Lakers’ playoff chances just as cloudy. But thanks to their ability to avoid a meltdown in his absence, the Lakers have at least left open the window of opportunity for a playoff push, even in the deep Western Conference.

BY THE NUMBERS

1
Game in which two rookies have produced triple-doubles after Orlando’s Victor Oladipo (DeMatha) and Phialdelphia’s Michael Carter-Williams accomplished the feat in the 76ers’ 126-125 double-overtime victory over the Orlando Magic on Tuesday. Carter-Williams has 27 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists while Oladipo finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

5
Games missed by Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade this season after he sat out Thursday’s loss to Chicago because of illness. Wade’s continued injury problems have led the defending NBA champs to seek back-court help via a trade, according to ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst.

QUOTABLES

“They hate me. They hate me. I don’t know why, but it is what it is. I already know I’ve got the target on my back, but I’ll play through it. I don’t care. I really don’t. It doesn’t bother me none.”

– Denver Nuggets guard Nate Robinson, after he was assessed with a technical foul following a Nov. 29 loss to New York. Robinson was fined $25,000 for his comments to The Denver Post.

“If I’m healthy and my meniscus is fully healed, of course I’ll be out there playing. But if it’s something totally different and the outcome is not how I would want it to be, there’s no need.”

– Chicago Bulls Derrick Rose, during a Thursday news conference in his first public comments since tearing the meniscus in his right knee on Nov. 22. Though Rose has been declared out for the season by the Bulls, the former MVP would not rule out a return should Chicago make the playoffs.

Brandon Parker is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee · December 6, 2013