The Black Mamba is back! While the NBA’s season has progressed over the last month, a void in the basketball universe was ever present. Love him or hate him, an NBA with Kobe Bryant on the sidelines felt odd and incomplete. Yes, there will come a day when the NBA will have to move on once the Mamba hangs up that purple and gold amour for good – not for at least two more years due to his contract extension – but for now, a Kobe-less NBA simply didn’t feel right. Just think about it; there are high school seniors that will graduate this May who have never seen an NBA without Kobe Bryant. Pretty unreal, right?
That void disappeared Sunday night, as Kobe laced up his newly released retros, put on his Lakers’ Sunday whites #24 jersey, and made his long-awaited season debut coming off Achilles surgery last April. A pitch-black Staples Arena filled with exuberant fans greeted Bryant during a dramatic, yet fitting, player intro with “The Imperial March” from Star Wars echoing throughout the arena, signifying that The Mamba is ready to strike again. The stage was officially set, and now Kobe will venture on to the self-named “Last Chapter” of his spectacular career.
Why is Kobe Bryant’s return to the hardwood good for the entire NBA and its fans? Let’s take a look.
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10. UNOFFICIAL RECRUITMENT OF FREE AGENTS
It is no secret that the Lakers have set their sights on the 2014 and 2015 offseason to do their damage via free agency. Los Angeles and, in particular, the Lakers have been a free agent magnet for decades. However, the new restrictions and harsher luxury tax system set in place under the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) have tightened the leash for the Lakers front office to go after just about anyone they want. On top of that, bad contracts have added a few knots to that leash. That will change next summer with their rather clean books – even with Kobe’s large chunk of salary. They have enough to go after and sign one max-contract player and other solid players to lesser deals. Since the front office can’t contact potential free agents without violating tampering rules, Kobe’s performance for the next 62 games will have the attention of those free agents, and could very well play a major role in their decision to join the 5-time champion next season or not.
9. ALL-TIME SCORING LIST: JORDAN’S NEXT
For the last few seasons, it seemed like Kobe Bryant has been going through a streak of breaking records. Last season, Kobe surpassed Wilt Chamberlain to take over the fourth position on the all-time scoring list. Next up is none other than Kobe’s idol, Michael Jordan. Jordan finished his illustrious career with 32,292 points and the third spot on this list, behind Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. With his nine points in his season debut on Sunday, Bryant’s all-time points total now stands at 31,626, meaning he is a mere 667 points away from surpassing Air Jordan. As that dwindles down, expect the league to come to a standstill.
8. RELEVANCE TO MEDIOCRE GAMES
There has been a ton of talk recently about the overall weakness of the Eastern Conference – with the exception of Indiana and Miami. Unfortunately for the East, the West regained one of its most lethal weapons with the return of The Black Mamba. However, all teams with a sub-.500 record, mainly in the East, have more attention coming their way when Kobe and the Lakers come to town. Love him or hate him, Kobe draws attention and hype like no other in the game, which is welcomed by small markets and struggling teams. Look at the amount of attention an early regular season match between a 10-9 Lakers and a 6-12 Raptors team received on Sunday. The NBA is a business, and Kobe Bryant is good for business.
7. GIVING MORE POWER TO THE WESTERN CONFERENCE
As mentioned above, Kobe’s return to the floor only boosts the power of the Western Conference. Yet, the main question for the Lakers now is will his presence shake up the West a bit? It is simply unfair to judge Kobe’s impact solely based on one game, as that is too small of a sample size to do so. The Lakers exceeded expectations during their time without Kobe, earning a winning record of 10-9 going into Sunday’s game against Toronto. It will be interesting to see just how Kobe will affect his teammates and the team’s game plan. Fans will be watching to see just how powerful the West can be with the addition of The Mamba and if he can lead the Lakers to a playoff appearance.
6. RIVALRIES ARE MORE INTERESTING
Rivalries make the sports world go round. The NBA is sporting new rivalries and un-surfacing some old ones in the game today. While the league’s best historical rivalry – Lakers-Celtics – has been put on the backburner for now, Lakers games against the Clippers, and the Rockets especially, will gain tremendous hype now with the return of Bryant. These games are not technically rivalries, but they are the closest to it. The battle for L.A. is must-see TV, especially since the Lakers shocked the Clippers on opening night and beat Dwight Howard’s Rockets on his homecourt thanks to a Steve Blake buzzer-beater. And that was without Kobe Bryant.