(SportsNetwork.com) - There's always drama emanating from the Los Angeles Lakers this time of year.
So what's eating the Lakers before the 2013-14 season commences? This time it's the health of future Hall of Fame guard Kobe Bryant, who's on the mend from a torn left Achilles suffered back in April.
An Achilles injury can end a player's career, just ask former New York Giants All-Pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Taylor was still in tip-top shape when the injury derailed his career and Bryant is hoping that won't be the case for him. Bryant has steadfastly pushed his body to the limit in his rehabilitation process, but it's still uncertain when the 15-time All-Star will return.
According to Lakers spokesperson John Black, Bryant is "progressing well and has met all the targets and milestones in his rehabilitation." Black also added that it will be vital for Bryant to also build back his strength and endurance in his "knees, legs, back and core." Bryant will need his conditioning back in head coach Mike D'Antoni's break-neck offense and will be relied on again to carry the scoring load.
Bryant, a five-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was third in the NBA last season with 27.3 points per game and visited Germany earlier this month to undergo more platelet-rich plasma therapy on his right knee. As if Bryant's Achilles issue wasn't serious enough, Bryant's body seems to be slowly breaking down and that's par for the course for playing 17 years. He has started to jog lightly and take standing set shots, but the Lakers still feel the face of the franchise will miss all of the preseason.
The Lakers' all-time leading scorer was in Dubai promoting health and fitness and he talked about possibly returning Oct. 29 in the season opener versus the Staples Center co-tenants, the Clippers.
"Now it's about cutting the recovery time, I should be OK (for the start of the season)," Bryant told The National, a website in Dubai.
Whether he's promoting good health or sharing basketball pointers, Bryant is competitive in every way. Setting a return date for as early as the season opener only shows he is determined to prove all skeptics wrong and that he still has enough left for another championship run.
Bryant won't have All-Star center Dwight Howard after his soap opera ended with the Houston Rockets. Bryant lobbied for Howard's return and said the reason he wanted the powerful center to return was because of his "talent level" and "defensive prowess."
"We saw what he could do at the end of the year when we all started clicking ... I think that makes him extremely, extremely valuable," Bryant said.
Bryant was right; the Lakers won eight of their last nine games of the regular season and captured the seventh seed in the Western Conference. They were swept by the eventual conference champion San Antonio Spurs in the quarterfinals. Bryant, of course, did not play in the postseason and was asked during media day about Howard's departure.
"Honestly, man, I don't really give a (expletive)," Bryant said. "If he would have come back, it would have been great. If he didn't ... it is what it is."
Before Howard packed his bags for Space City, Bryant remained optimistic about the team and being devoted to proving naysayers wrong.
"I hear the critics (of) the roster, everything is up in the air ... it may seem that way now but the dust will settle," Bryant said in June. "We'll have a team out there on the floor that's going to be a contender."
The Lakers being a contender is still questionable. The timetable for Bryant's return is unknown even though he feels he can make it back by the end of the month. Center Pau Gasol and point guard Steve Nash aren't getting any younger and need to stay healthy to keep D'Antoni's squad competitive. Of course all of the responsibility falls on Bryant, who, at age 35, can still carry a team.
2012-13 Results: 45-37, 3rd in Pacific, swept in West quarters by Spurs
ADDITIONS: C Ryan Kelly, G Nick Young, G Jordan Farmar, G/F Wesley Johnson, C Chris Kaman
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Steve Nash SG- Kobe Bryant SF- Wesley Johnson PF- Jordan Hill C- Pau Gasol
KEY RESERVES: G Nick Young, G Jordan Farmar, C Chris Kaman, G Jodie Meeks, G Steve Blake
FRONTCOURT: With no Howard or Metta World Peace in the mix anymore, the Lakers will head back a few years when Gasol was the center of attention so to speak. Gasol appeared in just 49 games because of injury and posted 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds. Gasol is a four-time All-Star and, if healthy, can still be an inside presence. The aging Lakers need all the assistance they can get and having Gasol's length on the floor makes them that much better. But, of course, Gasol will have to play at least 70-75 games.
"We finished the year a lot happier of how I was placed on the court, and how I was used," Gasol said. "My productivity shows that. (D'Antoni and I) agreed that we all took our time to know each other and figure each other out, and figure out how to utilize the personnel to play the (best way). I'd like to be used the right way so I can maximize what I bring to the table."
The Lakers tried bolstering the small forward spot by signing Wesley Johnson, who averaged 8.0 points and 2.5 boards in 50 games (21 starts) with the Phoenix Suns last season. Things didn't work out for Johnson in Minnesota, which selected him fourth overall in the 2010 NBA Draft, and neither did his time in the desert. Johnson is an athletic and energetic player and has defensive skills as well. The Lakers will need stoppers on the wings, especially if Bryant isn't ready for the season opener.
Jordan Hill is entering his third season with Los Angeles and appeared in 29 games in 2012-13, posting 6.7 points and 5.7 rebounds. This position could change prior to or during the season if Hill fails to live up to expectations. Newcomer Chris Kaman could take over that spot for Hill.
BACKCOURT: Bryant's career and ability to lead have been well documented and L.A. can only hope he returns as soon as Oct. 29 or early November. In the jumbled and competitive West, it's wise to get out to an early lead before having to cram wins in at season's end. That's what happened over the course of about two months before the playoffs commenced last season. Los Angeles went 28-12 in the final 40 games to reach the postseason.
It's obvious the strength of the Lakers is their backcourt. Nash will be running the point and was limited to 50 games in 2012-13, averaging 12.7 points and 6.7 assists per game in his first stint in L.A. He missed 24 games due to a lower leg fracture suffered in the second contest of the year and all of April because of hamstring/hip/back issues.
"Without a doubt, it was a messed up year for him," D'Antoni said. "There were also a lot of other factors, like coming to a new team and wanting to succeed when not physically feeling well, trying to worry about his game, his body but yet having other problems on the floor that he had to deal with."
D'Antoni, though, said Nash looks more comfortable with his body in training camp and he's in great shape. The savvy guard is a nightmare for opposing teams at the free throw line and knows how to get his teammates involved. Remember, Nash was already a proven star in this league before coming to Hollywood. Nash, a two-time MVP and eight-time All-Star, said he will prepare better than he ever has to make the 2013-14 season a memorable one.
BENCH: Steve Blake will back up Nash at the point and Meeks is the Lakers' top reserve at the No. 2 spot. Blake can manage a game quite well and D'Antoni is confident in the guard's skillset.
"When Steve Blake came back last year, we were pretty good," D'Antoni said. "We were 28-12 (actually 26-12) to finish the season. But we could never get both of our point guards healthy all year, as either one or both were out, including in the playoffs. That really hurt us."
The Lakers added some offensive firepower, too, in guard Nick Young, center Chris Kaman, rookie center Ryan Kelly and guard Jordan Farmar, who's back for another stint with the Lakers. Kaman and the rookie Kelly are expected to soak up most of the minutes inside. Young has proven he can score in this league from his days with Washington, but faltered in Philadelphia last season.
"You just try to figure out what the best line up that's most effective most of the time, and that's what you go with," D'Antoni said.
COACHING: D'Antoni wasn't a fan favorite at first when the Lakers hired him to replace Mike Brown. Many clamored for the great Phil Jackson to return, but the Lakers' front office didn't want to go down that road and opted for D'Antoni's seven-seconds-or-less philosophy. Getting the passionate Bryant on board was priority No. 1 and D'Antoni knew it.
"Everybody knows the accolades, how tough he is, how determined and all that. A lot of it for this season is going to depend upon when and how he comes back," D'Antoni said. "But he'll get back to where he was, and he had his best statistical year ever last year."
Good coaching is what leads teams deep into the postseason and the Lakers will need it. They were only the seventh seed last season, but did make the playoffs for an eighth year in a row. D'Antoni added some familiar faces to the coaching staff, bringing in Kurt Rambis and Johnny Davis. Davis sounded like the former head coach he once was when asked about what this team needs to be more competitive.
"The key is that we really and truly and sincerely have to be a team. Not just a collection of guys wearing the same color uniform, but truly a team so when you are practicing or doing anything, you don't want to let your teammate down," Davis said. "And you'll do what you're supposed to do to give the team the best chance at success. And do it consistently."
OUTLOOK: All doesn't appear good for the Lakers and a 40-win season may be asking too much. Bryant's timetable for a return is still unknown, leaving the Lakers no better than the seventh or eighth seed in the West. Several teams have started to move past Los Angeles in talent and there's nothing the Lakers can do about it. Gasol and Nash are poised for a productive season and so are some of the newcomers, but will it be enough to keep L.A. in the postseason even if Bryant misses time? The Lakers have enough talent to dispose of the lower echelon teams around the NBA and will struggle with the elite.