Sports Illustrated’s interview with Kobe Bryant is just as revealing and interesting as the one the magazine recently gave us featuring Phil Jackson. Kobe Bryant’s basketball brain is rather large, so any time he goes on record you can trust that interesting stuff will come out, even if you can see right through the bluster.
What he gave SI’s Jack McCallum on Feb. 12 was bluster, but it’s also a direct line into Bryant’s thinking. Kobe won’t consider for a second that the Los Angeles Lakers aren’t making the playoffs this season, and he’s not letting his team’s 26-29 (and, at the time of the interview, 24-28) record deter him. He’s making the playoffs, and he doesn’t mind the competition that awaits.
SI: Can you get this done? And is it hard that after winning five championships you're battling to make the playoffs?
Bryant: It's not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone -- Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver ... whoever. I have zero nervousness about that.
SI: OK, that's you, who has never been known for lack of confidence.
Bryant: But I'm not talking about just me. Us as a group. We will make the playoffs. And we will compete.
The Lakers are currently three and a half games behind the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets for that final playoff spot out West. On the surface, with seven weeks and 27 games left to play, that may not seem like too steep a hurdle. Especially when you consider that the team will welcome Pau Gasol back in early April, and the fact that the Lakers and Rockets will take part in what could be a play-in game in Los Angeles on the final night of the regular season.
The team has won just 26 of its first 55 games, though. And if the Rockets continue their current pace, the going rate for an eighth seed will be 44 wins. This means the Lakers would have to completely reverse gears and toss off an 18-9 record to finish the season. Not a legendary mark, to be sure, but it’s also a winning percentage completely out of line from what we’ve seen from Kobe’s crew so far in 2012-13.
We’ve been waiting for that switch to be flipped all season. The All-Star break and a clear enemy in the Houston Rockets could go a long way toward defining goals and finally turning this lost season around, but do the Lakers have it in them?
A massive Laker comeback is certainly not out of the question, because NBA teams can often bank on those coin flip games landing the right way a disproportionate amount of times. Houston fans know this better than anyone else, just five years removed from a 22-game Rocket winning streak helmed by a relatively unremarkable (to, say, the 1972 Lakers or 1996 Bulls) cast of characters. That 2007-08 Rocket team put together a 33-27 record aside from that streak, something that seems more in line for a team working through 43 games’ worth of missed games from Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.
Using that sense, an 18-9 record to finish the season and take on those Western bigwigs Kobe casually dismissed last week doesn’t seem like too much of a burden. So much has to go right, though, with the Lakers (who are 9-18 on the road) playing 10 of 14 games away from Los Angeles in March. The Rockets (who have played more road games than home attempts this season) would have to maintain their current rate, no given thing considering how the team has improved steadily as the games have moved along, and the Lakers would have to completely turn around their season on a dime.
As has been the hope for Los Angeles all year long. The opening night loss to Dallas was supposed to be the low point. Then it was the three-game losing streak to start the season. Then the firing of Mike Brown was supposed to turn things around. Then it was the ascension of Mike D’Antoni that was supposed to fix things. Then it was the return of Steve Nash. Then it was the return of Pau Gasol. Then it was the benching of Pau Gasol. Then it was the various “season starts TO-DAY!” proclamations. Then it was the return home after the Grammy trip. Now it’s the return from the All-Star break, and Kobe’s on-record guarantee.
The point being is that we’ve seen this dance before. Nothing will change in Los Angeles unless Dwight Howard begins to approximate his play prior to 2011 on both sides of the ball, and Kobe Bryant attempts to play the sort of defense that he showcased in Sunday’s All-Star game. All worries about bench woes and lacking teammates will slide away, as we saw in Miami last season, once the top-heavy end of the roster starts to play to its potential.
And in Kobe’s defense, these are things you say. These are things you not only tell others while on record with Sports Illustrated, but to yourself as you attempt to work through the malaise. The Los Angeles Lakers don’t need Kobe Bryant to be pragmatic, or mindful of the Houston Rockets’ latest win. They need him to score, finally hit a friggin’ three-pointer (Bryant has missed 33 of his last 34 attempts from behind the arc), and start playing defense. They need his resolve to sustain. They don’t need a scoreboard-watcher.
An 18-9 record, probably, to make the playoffs and see if it was all worth it. It’s certainly workable, and Bryant’s belief is admirable. We’ll be watching, Kobe.