Kobe Bryant is 35 years old. He's recovering from a career-threatening Achilles injury. Skeptics say he will never be the explosive player he once was. Observers anticipate that his Lakers will miss the playoffs, which is another way of saying that Bryant isn't good enough to carry them there anymore.
This is exactly what Bryant wants to hear, of course. He wants desperately to prove himself at the expense of his critics, even if it means pushing himself through miserable pain when he could be relaxing with his riches, his rings and his young family.
The suspicion here is that Kobe is indeed going to get the last laugh. Instead of nodding my head in agreement with the predictions of his imminent demise, I find myself focusing on Bryant's upside and his inevitable comeback.
The NBA is going to be surprised to find Bryant and his Lakers back in the playoffs for a few reasons. The diminishment of his athleticism will be offset by his skills. He's playing for an offensive genius, who has squeezed success out of players in predicaments similar to Bryant. The formula is set up for Kobe to affirm the qualities of stubbornness and resiliency that have defined him for the previous 17 seasons.
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It sounds ridiculous to be referring to the "upside" of a star who has spent more than half of his life as a star with the Lakers. But there is an opportunity here for Bryant to define himself in an entirely new way -- to reinvent himself as kind of an underdog for the first time since his championship breakthrough as a 21-year-old in 2000.
Bryant can be slower athletically and still be effective technically. It's as if Bryant has invested his basketball lifetime in training for this day. He has always been an explosive athlete with the skills of an older man.
Coach Mike D'Antoni has arrived at the right time for Bryant. The reason I picked the Lakers to finish sixth in the West before this season was based in part on D'Antoni's longstanding record for salvaging neglected talents like Xavier Henry, Jordan Hill and Wesley Johnson. Their productivity is only part of the formula; the rest of it revolves around Bryant and his role in D'Antoni's offense.
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"He's on a team that can stay in games and he's a player that can win those games for them," an NBA advance scout told me this week. "It all depends on if he can see himself in that role. He doesn't have to carry them all 48 minutes; he can be with them for 47, and then available to carry them in the 48th. There might be nights where he's got to take over a little bit. But I don't think there's going to be as many."
By design there shouldn't be as many. The floor is going to be spread for Bryant far more than it was last year, when D'Antoni altered his system in hopes of creating a role for Dwight Howard. The newfound space will create opportunities for Bryant that should enable his skills, experience and ambition to make up for whatever he might have lost athletically.
The spacing of the floor becomes a strength for the Lakers only if the ball moves faster than the defense. D'Antoni's system didn't work for Carmelo Anthony because he didn't believe in the system: He didn't move the ball.
I'm guessing that Bryant won't view D'Antoni as the enemy who demands that he lessen his game; on the contrary, D'Antoni's offense can liberate Bryant and enable him to prove his critics wrong. Quick decisions with the ball -- decisions that Anthony didn't make when he played for D'Antoni -- could enable Kobe's Lakers to become one of the NBA's feel-good stories.
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Players who show faith in D'Antoni's system over the years have been rewarded with improved stats. It happened in Phoenix, it happened in New York (enabling the Knicks to create enough value in their roster to trade for Anthony) and it has happened early this season in Los Angeles. If the offense creates space for Henry and Johnson, then it can surely create opportunities for one of the league's smartest players.
The fact that the point guards are injured -- Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar and now Steve Blake -- means Bryant can fill a playmaking role and integrate more quickly with the offense.
"He could be a point guard and facilitate for them," the scout said. "He'll never be the type of point guard that Steve Nash is -- or was, or would like to be -- but he could adjust his game to be on the floor. He's a hell of a shooter, a winner, a post-up player.
"Does he go into the post more? That would be something he could turn to. But is that something that's in the scheme right now of D'Antoni's offense? I would say not really. But it could be -- if that's what it takes to win, then D'Antoni will do it, I'm sure.''
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It's in the best interests of everybody -- especially Bryant and D'Antoni -- to make the adjustments, because the potential is obvious (to me, at least). Grant Hill was 35 years old and more damaged than Bryant when he came to Phoenix in 2007. The style of play (in conjunction with the work of the Suns' medical staff) rejuvenated his career for the next four years.
Pau Gasol has been more of a playmaker than a scorer so far this year, but the presence of Bryant in a ball-movement offense should create more opportunities for him as well. The possible return of Nash would further transform the identity of the Lakers -- if they're winning with three elderly Hall-of-Famers at the ends of their careers, they would be viewed as inspiring overachievers. Sort of like what the Nets were hoping to be this year.
I'm sure a lot of you think I'm being too optimistic, but this point of view is based on three things: (1) D'Antoni's record when he's had talent, (2) the Lakers' promising start and (3) Bryant's hunger. We can all agree that no one is more driven than Kobe. The Lakers know him and understand his current circumstances better than anyone, after all, and they were confident enough to invest $48.5 million in his next two seasons.
My belief in the Lakers comes down to this simple prediction: That Bryant is going to enhance D'Antoni's offense rather than diminish it. He's going to need time to work himself back into the rhythm of the game. It may look ugly for these first few weeks. But over the second half of the season, I'm guessing that Bryant will prove too talented, proud and ambitious to fail.
• Pacers win at home against Heat. It was an ugly, impassioned game featuring the only teams that matter in the East, and the outcome was far more important to Indiana than the two-time champs. Even if the Pacers win in Miami on Wednesday, the Heat (pending health) will still be the team to beat entering the playoffs. The benefit of the doubt goes to LeBron until proved otherwise.
• LeBron James and Kevin Durant lead All-Star balloting. But the real surprise was that Paul George (489,335) received the fourth-most votes in the first round, roughly 12,000 behind Kobe Bryant. Think about the gains made by Indiana's 23-year-old forward: One year ago he wasn't viewed as an All-Star, and now he's an MVP candidate who has raised the Pacers' hopes of winning the championship.
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• Raptors downsizing. They saved money by sending Rudy Gay to Sacramento and openly declared their intention to rebuild via the draft, it being a very good year to do so. Then they put point guard Kyle Lowry on the market, with New York inially appearing to show the most interest initially. The Knicks ought to grab him: Lowry plays with an edge that the Knicks have been lacking, and he's on an expiring contract that won't damage their cap space in 2015.
• Omer Asik changes agents. He was shifting from Andy Miller to Arn Tellem as the drumbeat built around his recent demand to be traded by the Rockets, who have sidelined their disgruntled center with a "bruised thigh."
• Stephen Jackson returns. The talented 35-year-old lightning rod came back with a Clubber Lang haircut to shore up the Clippers' perimeter. Based on Jackson's 14-year career, this experiment will either go very well or very badly.
• Another rough week for Memphis. Quincy Pondexter was sidelined for the rest of the year by a stress fracture in his right foot, joining with injured center Marc Gasol to further thin the Grizzlies' weakened rotation. And former assistant coach Barry Hecker gave an incendiary interview to the Sporting News in which he said he warned former head coach Lionel Hollins that assistant coach Dave Joerger was angling to replace him.
• Punitive damages. The NBA issued fines and suspensions totaling more than $600,000 in November alone -- equal to the penalties of the opening month over the previous three seasons -- in addition to 343 technical fouls and 21 flagrant fouls, which come at a cost of $2,000 each. The New York Times report affirmed the feeling of players that the league is working hard to escalate discipline. But the players shouldn't complain too much -- ratings are up and a rich new TV deal is on the way.
• Michael Jordan's six-figure sneakers. His 'Flu Game" shoes were auctioned for $104,765 some 16 years after Jordan gave them to Preston Truman, who was a ball boy for the Jazz. Maybe Phil Jackson was right to compare Jordan to the great artists; like Van Gogh, Jordan never could have imagined the market that would develop around his work.
For more NBA news, check out SI.com's The Point Forward blog.
The 6-foot point guard is averaging 17.4 minutes as the backup to Chris Paul for the Pacific-leading Clippers. Collison, 26, was born and raised in Rancho Cucamonga, 60 miles from UCLA, where he played for four years.
His parents were world-class runners from Guyana. "I knew I was fast, but I didn't know how fast I was. I remember coach (Ben) Howland (at UCLA) used to tell me, 'You're one of the fastest guys in college basketball,' but it didn't hit me until I got to this level. My parents are Olympians -- track stars -- and it's in my DNA to run. This is a transition league, you've got to be able to run with the best of them, and that's something I enjoy.
"I was one of those guys, I wished I had a little more height. Come to find out guys my size can have an advantage in the NBA. It doesn't matter if you're small, tall, big, whatever -- you're always going to have an advantage, and you've always got to be true to that.
"Guys my size have to be really finesse. You can't go in there with the Amare Stoudemires and Brook Lopezes and Tim Duncans. You really have to use artwork as far as the floater or how you use your shot in the paint. It's definitely tough for us, but at the same time we can use our speed; we're so small we can get through those little gaps that other players cant get through.''
At UCLA he played with future NBA guards Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar. "We never had a chance to all sit down and talk about being in the NBA, but I think once we see whoever is doing good, it gives you a good feeling about where we came from as a group and how far we came. It's encouraging to see.
"I think the NBA game is easier for me. Some people may disagree, but I can get to the basket a lot easier and create for myself. But on the other hand, on defense you're still guarding more talented guys -- and that's what you want. You want to compete against the best.''
He stayed in college for four years, then went undrafted until the Hornets picked him No. 21 in 2009. "I was the ninth point guard picked in the first round and that's something I'm going to never forget. But it helped my maturity to stay in college, it helped me to be poised on every possession and be able to see whatever options I had. In the college game you really have to use your teammates to win games, and I think in the NBA the most successful guys really use their teammates.''
He spent his rookie season backing up Chris Paul in New Orleans. "It was a treasure to be behind one of the best point guards in the league and to learn from him and to see how he acts on and off the court. It was definitely a blessing for me and I tried to use that to my advantage."
After moving to Indiana and Dallas, Collison signed with the Clippers to renew his role as Paul's backup. "I'm from L.A., I'm back home and I get an opportunity to play on this team -- we have a chance to do something special, and my family and friends are right there. It's a blessing for me."
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Quote of the week
"The guys are executing the game plan."
-- Jason Kidd
Days after firing the world's richest assistant coach and welcoming back Deron Williams, the Nets won three straight at home. Williams provided 40 points combined in wins against the Celtics and Clippers while providing balance to their rotation. But the interesting development of this ongoing reality show is going to be whether Kidd essentially made a dramatic stand by taking on total responsibility for the failure of his team; as opposed to sharing the leadership and deferring to his more experienced lead assistant Lawrence Frank.
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Their six good days were enough to raise the 8-14 Nets within a game of Boston for the lead in the Atlantic and a guaranteed top-four seed. More to the point, the Nets instantly look like the third-best team in the mediocre East -- which in itself is nothing to be proud of. But at least it's a start.
An NBA advance scout, who travels and studies the entire league, talks about whether divisions are still relevant:
"I don't think divisions are relevant at all. I think it's strictly Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference today. I can tell you Indiana is not worrying about winning the Central division, or Miami is not worrying about winning the Southeast or whatever they call it.
"Now, for other teams, the division standings may give you a smaller picture-version of something else to shoot for in order to break up the long year. I also think rivalries help over the course of the 82-game season. They infuse a little bit of drama and get you up and excited and change your energy level. Rivalries are important, whether it's an individual rivalry, whether it's guys who have had arguments with one another or Doc Rivers going back to Boston -- little things like that change up the dynamic of the routine every day, of going to the gym at 4:30 for the 7:30 start and then getting on the plane the next day. Rivalries give you a better quality of performance.
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"But I don't think those rivalries are about geography anymore. Even in the old days when it was Philly and Boston, was it more about Philly and Boston or more about Dr. J and Larry Bird? I don't think anyone would cry about losing the divisions.
"In a perfect world, the travel could be set up to be smarter. If you're a West Coast team, why do you play the Knicks one time and then two months later you play the Nets -- when you could play those games in a row? Why wouldn't you play Chicago and Milwaukee on a trip, or play Detroit and Cleveland on the same trip. In the West it's a little bit harder: but Sacramento and Golden State would be easy, or playing L.A. and L.A. would be easy.
"The only real rivalry I can see in terms of geography is East vs. West; there still is something to that. You don't play the other conference so much, though I don't know if it's the same anymore that the style of play in the West is softer with teams running up and down, while and the East has the bruisers and the good defensive teams. But there is something inherent there between the two conferences. I don't think it's the Crips and the Bloods, but there's something interesting about only seeing each other twice a year.''
These players have missed at least half of their team's games through Thursday. It doesn't include players who have suffered recent injuries like Davis, Marc Gasol, Andre Iguodala, J.J. Redick, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Quincy Pondexter and Jordan Farmar -- all scheduled to qualify for this team in the weeks ahead.
C: Tyson Chandler (leg), Knicks ... missed 17 games (equal to $2,923,282 of this year's salary)
F: Andrei Kirilenko (back), Nets ... missed 17 games ($659,890)
F: Danny Granger (calf), Pacers ... missed 22 games ($3,761,943)
G: Kobe Bryant (Achilles), Lakers ... missed 19 games ... ($7,056,369)
G: Derrick Rose (knee), Bulls ... missed 10 games ($2,150,328)
C: Larry Sanders (thumb), Bucks ... missed 19 games ($707,488)
C: Greg Oden (knees), Heat ... missed 22 games ($237,249)
C: Javale McGee (leg), Nuggets ... missed 16 games ($2,097,561)
F: Danilo Gallinari (knee), Nuggets ... missed 21 games ($2,598,603)
F: Jimmy Butler (toe), Bulls ... missed 11 games ($149,289)
G: Deron Williams (ankle), Nets ... missed 11 games ($2,477,164)
G: Rajon Rondo (knee), Celtics ... missed 24 games ($3,498,891)
G: Steve Nash (back, hamstrings), Lakers ... missed 15 games ($1,701,311)
G: Chauncey Billups (knee), Pistons ... missed 15 games ($457,317)
G: Lou Williams (knee), Hawks ... missed 13 games ($828,354)