Early in the season, the Lakers gave Kobe Bryant a $48.5-million, two-year extension -- a gamble that he'll fully recover from the Achilles' injury that ended his season in April 2013.
After six games played, Bryant went down with a knee fracture in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Dec. 17. The Lakers went on to win 27 games, a full 30 behind the Clippers (57-25).
Bryant returned to the court Monday, cleared to start training in anticipation of a full return for the 2014-15 season.
What should the Lakers expect for their $23.5 million next season?
With 18 seasons of mileage on his knees, Bryant will turn 36 in August. He averaged 13.8 points and 6.3 assists in 29.5 minutes a game through his brief stint, still feeling out his game after the Achilles' injury.
Last year, Bryant averaged 27.3 points with 6.0 assists while playing 38.6 minutes a game.
If age is going to have an effect on Bryant's game, the dip may come in minutes on the floor -- 30 a night may be a more realistic mark.
Persuading Bryant to stay on the bench for 18 minutes may be a difficult job for whoever is coaching the team (currently Mike D'Antoni, under contract for the coming year).
Pencil Bryant in at 21 points and 4.7 assists a night, accounting for reduced minutes.
Will that be enough to help the Lakers return to playoff contention? That's wholly dependent on who the team puts on the floor around their All-Star guard.
Additionally, Bryant needs to avoid injury, which is often a greater factor as players age. He made it through 78 of 80 last season, before missing the final two last year before the injury.
In his youth, he did whatever was possible to play hurt. A target of 68 to 72 games may be more realistic this coming season.
If so, the Lakers will get their money's worth. Bryant fills the seats at Staples Center, and on the road. He's must-watch TV, even when the club is struggling.
From a business perspective, the Lakers won't regret spending any money on Bryant.
Can the team fashion a contending team around him immediately (as Bryant expects), with his massive salary?
Then again, given the uncertain roster -- would the team have a contender if Bryant was playing for free?
What approach the Lakers take moving forward will likely be determined on May 20 at the NBA draft lottery. The Lakers have a 21.5% chance at a top-three pick.
Odds are stronger the team ends up with the sixth or seventh overall selection.
Armed with a specific pick, the Lakers can look for help in the draft or in trade, perhaps for a veteran who can sooner help Bryant and the Lakers compete for a title.
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