Lakers can ease Kobe Bryant back into the rotation

Rob Carr

Kobe Bryant will surely return to the Lakers' starting lineup, but the team is designed to allow him to lower his minutes and take time off if needed.

Kobe Bryant officially announced he will return for the Los Angeles Lakers when they face the Toronto Raptors on Sunday, making his recovery from tearing his Achilles complete in less than eight months. The Lakers are off to an 10-9 start to the season, exceeding expectations for a team consisting of multiple former first-round draft picks who were unable to carve a niche in the league. It's difficult to project how he will immediately impact the team, but both Kobe and the Lakers are in great position to take it slow and not force things.

Los Angeles' leading scorer is Pau Gasol, who is averaging 14.3 points per game on a career-low 41 percent shooting. Six players have a usage rate between 20-26 percent, according to Basketball-Reference. Bryant has finished with a usage rate above 30 percent for 12 of his last 13 seasons and has a clear path to step back into his leading role with the team. He could play limited minutes in the foreseeable future as LA tests his limitations and eases him back into the NBA, though, something he said he was "comfortable" with already.

There was no need to rush Bryant out to the court with the team floating at an even record on the season, which makes monitoring his progress after each game more important than pushing him back on the floor for the sake of scrounging up as many wins as possible. He's already noted the mobility in his ankle joint is suffering after months of being immobilized, and he isn't close to "game" condition. The Lakers did a solid job of adding extra depth behind Kobe as the team prepared for life post-Achilles tear.

The current wing rotation features Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks and Nick Young, and they have all handled the position as a committee. Each player is averaging at least 19 minutes per game, and Meeks is averaging career highs in points per game, rebounds per game, field goal percentage and three-point-shooting percentage as the Lakers' starting shooting guard. Bryant's return will alter the rotation, but the depth Mike D'Antoni is already playing at shooting guard and small forward provides a set of reserves to help limit his minutes or, more importantly, fill in if he needs to take games off due to setbacks or any other health concerns.

Here's a look at the offensive efficiency ratings for the Lakers' current wing rotation, along with Kobe's from last season:

Lakers_wings_medium

When any of the current Lakers wings, aside from Wesley Johnson, are off the court, the team averages fewer points per 100 possessions. Bringing Kobe back should help bridge a glaring gap in the Lakers' rotation, giving D'Antoni the ability to always have at least one of Young, Meeks, Henry or Bryant on the court at all times.

The depth the Lakers built behind Kobe should allow the team to pace his return accordingly. In eight of the Lakers' final 10 games of the 2012-2013 season, he played for at least 40 minutes as the team tried to secure a spot in the Western Conference playoffs. It's unlikely the Lakers will be in a position where that happens again this season, especially as they try to protect his long-term health after signing him to a two-year, $48 million extension before he played a single game.

Yes, the Lakers offense is averaging 101.4 points per 100 possessions and ranked in the middle of the league at 15th, according to NBA.com. Los Angeles certainly needs a player to run its offense through, especially with Steve Nash out until further notice, Jordan Farmar expected to miss at least a month and Steve Blake playing through an arm injury.

What the Lakers need more than a bump in offensive efficiency, however, is a cautious approach as Bryant returns to the NBA. He remains the face of the franchise, the highest-paid player in the NBA and the key to their success. Luckily for Kobe, the team has all of the components to facilitate a successful transition back into game shape.

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