At the quarter pole of this NBA season, it’s becoming clear which teams are truly part of the league’s elite and which ones ought to be condemned. In between is a giant squishy middle including some supposedly good teams, particularly …
Oh, who are we kidding. Kobe is back! Let’s talk about that.
Never has the return of a player to a .500 team with zero shot at a title been so highly anticipated. Sunday, the Lakers got back Bryant, and the results were about what you’d expect. Some nifty passing, some turnovers, not much lift and a bunch of rust.
“The last time I had eight months off,” Bryant said afterward, “I was still in the womb.”
Everything Bryant does for the next few weeks will be endlessly dissected, not just because he is among the greatest players the game has ever seen returning from an injury often devastating to athletes in their 30s, but because his ability to round into form has a massive impact on the NBA’s glamour franchise.
Debate whether the Lakers were smart to make Kobe the league’s highest-paid player over the next two years without seeing him play first, whether they have enough assets to acquire enough supporting talent, whether the league’s best players really want to play with Bryant, or whether the Lakers have a realistic shot of assembling a team capable of giving him a sixth title: Whatever plans the Lakers have are totally predicated on Bryant being Bryant.
I’m optimistic about that part, actually (not so much on the rest), and find the storyline of his recovery totally fascinating on about 9,000 levels.
But as over-the-top as some of the Kobe Returns! stuff was (I’m looking at you, Facebook video), there’s nothing over-hyped about the significance of the story. Not necessarily for this season, but the two coming after. More on that in this column from Heisler.
On to the rankings …
|Split the back-to-back at San Antonio and OKC. Paul George has emphatically entered the People-Who-Aren’t-LeBron James MVP Race, with a 29.8/4.8/3.6 line on 49 percent shooting over his last five games. Sheridan has him at No. 1.||1|
|The Spurs have nine players averaging more than 16 minutes a night. Eight have PER’s over 17. Pick it up, Danny Green.||2|
|3||THUNDER(15-4)||Sunday’s win over Indiana shows there isn’t much separating the NBA’s top four teams. Winning despite dropping from 1st to 10th in offensive efficiency — that should get better — and dominant at home.||4|
|With nobody chasing them and no pressure to secure a top seed, Miami can play it safe with Dwyane Wade. All that really matters is how healthy they are in April.||3|
|Beat Indiana, Oklahoma City and Utah before losing on a buzzer-beating Monta Ellis jumper vs. Dallas on Saturday. Overall, that’s a pretty good week.||6|
|Mark your calendars for an Omer Asik trade. Reports have him headed out the door between Dec. 15-19.||5|
|Just 1-3 since losing J.J. Redick to knee and hand injuries, including Saturday’s loss to Cleveland. But still well within striking distance of the elite, and it’ll get better.||7|
|Right there with Denver elevating the bottom half of the West draw. DeJuan Blair’s rebound rate is higher than Faried, Cousins, Bogut, Anthony Davis and Z-Bo.||9|
|Won eight of last 10 and 11-4 since JaVale McGee went down. Brian Shaw is finding his sea legs, but Ty Lawson’s hammy (out Saturday vs. Philly) will raise concerns.||8|
|Picked up a big win at Memphis on Saturday. Managing without Iguodala, and top 10 rankings in offensive and defensive efficiency says long term they should be fine.||10|
|Jeff Hornacek has the early line on COY honors. Miles Plumlee is pushing a nightly double-double (9.8/8.5). Ten games away from forcing folks to take them seriously. What does that mean for Emeka Okafor? Read this column.||13|
|Getting Kobe back basically puts the Lakers back in training camp mode for a week or two. Can they stick close to a playoff spot in the meantime?||14|
|A quietly effective week with wins over the Clips and Cavs and a buzzer loss at San Antonio. Kyle Korver’s 3-point record makes them briefly worth mentioning on highlight shows.||12|
|Still can’t sustain sea level, and Ricky Rubio’s shooting isn’t improving. Once had a point differential indicating they were better than their record, but that too is slipping.||11|
|Saturday’s 108-82 home loss to GSW drives home the problem: They can’t score (21st in offensive efficiency), can’t keep ‘em off the boards (17th in Def. Eff.). Too much grind, not enough grit.||16|
|Struggling to crack top eight out West. That changes if the D (22nd in efficiency) closes the gap on the O (5th) – a tall order following Anthony Davis’ hand injury.||15|
|Four straight wins had them near the East’s top four. Andre Drummond averaging scary 13.5/12.8/1.3 blocks with a PER just under 24.||20|
|After circus road trip, a circus homestand: Three OT loss to New Orleans, 20-point win over Miami and a 17-point loss to Detroit, all at United Center.||18|
|Marcin Gortat averaging 13.4/9.1/1.6 blocks and Wiz have won seven of 10, digging themselves out of a 2-7 start. Falling out of playoff contention while Beal heals is nearly impossible.||17|
|They’re at the top of Atlantic Division, which isn’t all that impressive until you consider they were expected to rest this season at the bottom of Atlantic Ocean.||22|
|As ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes, their impressive defensive numbers aren’t likely sustainable, and the offense is horrible. But being good at anything is a step forward in Charlotte.||19|
|One way to pad your Rookie of the Year resume: The Sixers are 6-9 when Michael Carter-Williams plays, 1-5 when he doesn’t.||25|
|So as it turns out, Mike Brown struggles coaching teams that don’t have LeBron. No surprise, since he struggled coaching teams that did have LeBron.||27|
|They have only two games — home dates vs. Atlanta and OKC — left in 2013 against teams over .500. If they can’t rally now, they won’t at all. Getting mauled by the C’s Sunday at the Garden isn’t a good omen.||28|
|Do the Kings think Rudy Gay’s 39 percent shooting mark is a product of exchange rates? Ought to make a godawful match with DeMarcus Cousins.||26|
|In any other season, they’re a terrifying, cautionary tale for overspending on aging players. This season, they’re still in hunt for home court in the first round.||24|
|GM Masai Ujiri undoes the work of previous regime, offloading massively inefficient contract of one of the NBA’s most massively inefficient scorers. A-plus work, especially since Toronto didn’t take dead money back.||21|
|Arron Afflalo shooting 49 percent, averaging 1.41 points per shot. Not easy tasks as a guard on a bad team playing without Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic.||23|
|Bad enough to make Brooklyn look good on Saturday night, losing by eight at home. So they’re good at stuff like that.||28|
|Plenty of decent B-level talent, but if young bigs Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors can’t play together effectively, the blueprint will have to be redrawn.||30|
Brian Kamenetsky is a frequent contributor to SheridanHoops.com. Follow him and his brother, Andy, on Twitter.