Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe is back but loss to Raptors shows Lakers still have a lot of work to do

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LOS ANGELES — Kobe passed the first challenge he has set before himself.

Eight months of never-ending therapy sessions and workouts to return to the court paid off — Kobe is back. He was introduced with Darth Vader’s theme music and Staples Center was buzzing like it was a playoff game. Kobe was on the court with the ball in his hands, particularly in the fourth quarter. It was what the Lakers nation had been waiting to see.

But what they saw wasn’t pretty.

“Right now my form is a horse s— form,” Bryant said bluntly after the game.

Fixing that and getting in sync with his teammates is the next challenge Kobe has to set his mind to.

Kobe said physically he felt right, but he looked understandably very rusty — like a guy who hadn’t played in an NBA game for eight months after Achilles surgery at age 35. Kobe was 2-of-9 shooting with eight turnovers. He led a group Lakers starters that shot 25 percent — not one of them scored in double digits.

Which is why the Lakers fell to the Raptors 106-94 to spoil Kobe’s much anticipated return.

This kind of rough start had to be expected (at least by anyone not seeing the world through purple and gold glasses). Not only was Kobe bound to be rusty but also the Lakers were going from a team where the ball was often in Steve Blake’s hands to one where Kobe controlled the flow of the offense.

“I felt good that I was able to get into the lane…” Kobe said after the loss. “I felt like I could penetrate and turn the corner, which was a big question mark for me. And then once I got in there I didn’t make the proper reads most of the time, but the fact of the matter I was able to get in there. The reads you can improve, the explosiveness you can’t.”

The other Lakers players (particularly the starters) were simply hesitant and guys were passive when Kobe was on the court. It wasn’t so much guys were just watching him (as has been an issue in the past) as much as just the movements in the offense were out of sync.

“We’re all trying to get used to playing with one another,” Lakers starting center Robert Sacre said. “It’s definitely been growing pains. I think we can handle it, nothing we haven’t seen before…

“I think it’s going to take a couple of games and unfortunately it’s not some easy games we’ve got coming down the pipe.”

The Lakers may not have a few games (they play the Suns Tuesday night followed by a four game road trip which includes Oklahoma City). In the deep Western Conference the 10-10 Lakers are the 10 seed and 1.5 games out of the playoffs. While it’s early and that’s not much, they can’t dig a much deeper hole if they plan to climb out of it and make the postseason because other teams are going to step over them. There is little forgiveness for slumps in the West.

Kobe showed some moments where he looked like his old self. For example his first bucket came with a pump fake lefty 10-foot bank with 5:07 left in second that was vintage. Late in the second quarter he used his jab step to create space for an 18-footer he nailed.

But mostly early we saw facilitator Kobe — and that is where the rust and lack of having played with guys through training camp and 19 games to start the season showed. Kobe was turning the ball over, clearly just not used yet to the speed of the NBA game and where the lanes to make passes would appear.

“He was as good as he can be, it’s going to take a while,” coach Mike D’Antoni said, repeating the mantra you heard from anyone in the Lakers locker room. “There’s no way he could do that, I know everybody thought he could but no way he could be out eight months, have no training camp, and come out and be in mid-season form.

“We knew that, which is why we needed the other guys needed to step up around him and we didn’t do that.”

What the Lakers did do was hide Kobe Bryant on defense — he guarded Landry Fields to start and later Steve Novak. He got switched onto DeMar DeRozan a few times and while he got an early steal that way generally that was a good matchup for the Raptors.

There were a lot of good matchups for the Raptors, particularly anyone in white trying to cover Amir Johnson who led Toronto with 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting. Toronto got 60 points in the paint with Johnson muscling his way in and DeRozan slashing his way (26 points). Without Rudy Gay (traded earlier in the day) Toronto moved the ball well and the Lakers had no good answers on that end.

Kobe knows the Lakers need to turn this around quickly. And planning to do his part of that in the most Kobe of ways.

“I couldn’t wait to start watching film and criticizing every little thing and I’ll go home tonight and watching over again, but that’s the exciting part,” Bryant said. “The exciting part is you got a challenge and you got some improvements to make and you sit and you watch them and you break it down and you get ready for the next game and carry it from there.”

It’s the next challenge and Kobe is ready for it. The fact that Kobe was back on the court just 240 days after having his Achilles torn is an accomplishment of a high magnitude. And some were able to really appreciate that.

“It’s my first time playing with Kobe, it’s something I can tell my son,” Shawne Williams said. “It was history to me.”

But Kobe is not one to dwell on history. He wants the next mountain to climb.

Report: Bucks signing Xavier Henry

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 16:  Xavier Henry #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots against the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on November 16, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  The Warriors won 136-115.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks hope Xavier Henry is just another thing Byron Scott is wrong about.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Henry – the No. 12 pick in the 2010 draft – never found his footing in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Hornets or Los Angeles Lakers. He made some strides with the Lakers in 2013-14, but he tore his Achilles early the following season. That compounded the knee injuries that made Scott doubt Henry could meet the expectations placed on him coming out of Kansas.

Milwaukee now has 15 players, the regular-season roster limit. If Henry’s deal is unguaranteed, he’s obviously not a lock to stick. But the Bucks could use another wing. I’m guessing they’ll add more players to compete with Henry for that final spot.

Report: Lakers signing Travis Wear

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 19: Travis Wear #6 of the New York Knicks dives for the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves  during their game at Madison Square Garden on March 19, 2015 in New York City.    NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Phil Jackson said he warned the Lakers they’d regret passing on Kristaps Porzingis with the No. 2 pick.

The Lakers are getting another swing at stretch big Jackson liked – though this time with far lower stakes.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Travis Wear spent 2014-15 with the Knicks and last season in Spain.

He’ll compete with recently signed Zach Auguste for a regular-season-roster opening that doesn’t exist – until the Lakers ditch Nick Young. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lakers add more players to the mix.

Both Wear and Auguste are eligible to have their D-League rights assigned to the Lakers’ affiliate if they’re waived before the season.

The 6-foot-10 Wear went undrafted out of UCLA in 2014. He has the makings of a stretch four, but he must become more comfortable beyond the arc rather than just in the mid-range.

NBA rookies love Kris Dunn, Ben Simmons – not so much

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 23:  Kris Dunn walks on stage after being drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 23, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Rookie of the Year, best playmaker, best defender and funniest. Kris Dunn even received a vote for best shooter despite his jumper holding him back in pre-draft evaluations.

Dunn – the Timberwolves’ No. 5 pick – cleaned up in the NBA’s annual rookie survey.

But when it came to the most important question, Brandon Ingram – the Lakers’ No. 2 pick – claimed the top spot:

Which rookie will have the best career?

1. Brandon Ingram, L.A. Lakers — 26.7%

2. Kris Dunn, Minnesota — 16.7%

3. Buddy Hield, New Orleans — 13.3%

T-4. Dragan Bender, Phoenix — 6.7%

Jaylen Brown, Boston — 6.7%

Jamal Murray, Denver — 6.7%

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia — 6.7%

Others receiving votes: Dejounte Murray, San Antonio; Dario Saric, Philadelphia; Pascal Siakam, Toronto; Tyler Ulis, Phoenix; Denzel Valentine, Chicago

That’s a pretty poor showing for Ben Simmons, whom the 76ers drafted No. 1. Maybe it’s because Simmons didn’t make the NCAA tournament at LSU.

But that lack of exposure only barely dissuades me. I still think Simmons will have the best career and win Rookie of the Year. The 76ers will likely feature him in a major role this season while Dunn is stuck behind Ricky Rubio (for now, at least).

But that didn’t dissuade their fist-year peers:

Who will be the 2016-17 Kia Rookie of the Year?

1. Kris Dunn, Minnesota — 29.0%

2. Brandon Ingram, L.A. Lakers — 25.8%

3. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia — 19.4%

Other notable questions (click through to NBA.com full results) and my picks:

Which rookie was the biggest steal at where he was selected in the Draft?

1. Dejounte Murray (29), San Antonio — 16.1%

2. Tyler Ulis (34), Phoenix — 12.9%

My pick: Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot (24), Philadelphia

Which rookie is the most athletic?

1. Jaylen Brown, Boston — 38.7%

2. Brice Johnson, L.A. Clippers — 16.1%

My pick: Brown

Which rookie is the best shooter?

1. Buddy Hield, New Orleans — 65.7%

2. Jamal Murray, Denver — 20.0%

My pick: Hield

Which rookie is the best defender?

1. Kris Dunn, Minnesota — 23.5%

2. Gary Payton II, Houston — 20.6%

3. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee — 17.6%

My pick: Payton

Which rookie is the best playmaker?

1. Kris Dunn, Minnesota — 29.4%

2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia — 26.5%

3. Tyler Ulis, Phoenix — 20.6%

My pick: Dunn in a vacuum with the caveat that Simmons’ playmaking – not far behind Dunn’s – will be more valuable at power forward than Dunn’s will be at point guard

Jose Calderon retires from Spanish national team

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 11:  Jose Calderon #8 of Spain moves the ball against Nigeria during the Men's Basketball - Preliminary Round Group B Nigeria vs Spain on Day 6 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Jose Calderon has won three Olympic medals – silver in 2008 and 2012 and bronze this year.

Just three men’s basketball players have won more:

  • Carmelo Anthony (three golds and a bronze for Team USA)
  • Gennady Volnov (a gold,* two silvers and a bronze for the Soviet Union)
  • Sergey Belov (a gold* and three bronzes for the Soviet Union)

Calderon, who turns 35 next month, won’t catch them.

O. Cauchi of Sportando:

Veteran point guard Jose Calderon has officially announced his retirement from Spanish NT.

Calderon barely played in Rio. Spain is stacked at point guard with Sergio Rodriguez, Ricky Rubio and Sergio Llull.

The Lakers aren’t as deep at the position with D'Angelo Russell and Marcelo Huertas. Calderon might have a bigger impact in Los Angeles – especially if he’s not saving himself for Eurobasket 2017.