There can’t be many things much more difficult or frustrating for a professional athlete than missing significant time to battle back from an injury, only to return and get injured again.
Derrick Rose suffered that fate unfortunately at the start of the season, and now Kobe Bryant, fresh off of returning from his Achilles injury, is out again. The tagged six-week recovery time that comes with the fractured bone in Bryant’s knee would see him returning sometime right around February’s All-Star Break, at the earliest.
The Lakers, currently tenth in the West at 13-14, are fighting to stay in the playoff picture. An extended absence from Bryant, coupled with all of the other injury issues the team is facing, may well sink the season.
Bryant will do everything in his power and then some to get back out on the hardwood as soon as possible to help keep his team on track, as is his way. You know, pray for the bear, and all that.
But, by that point the Lakers season may well be lost.
If Bryant were to return for the February 19th game against Houston, which is the Lakers’ first game back from break and slightly over six weeks from the initial injury, he will have missed 28 more games, after playing in only six so far this season. By then, the Lakers may be well outside of playoff positioning. If L.A. plays .500 ball over that span, which may be difficult without their superstar and facing a plethora of injuries to other players, they would welcome Kobe back with a 27-28 record; good enough for contention in the anemic East, but not in the wild, wild West.
The reality is, the Lakers as currently constructed, weren’t going to capture a championship this season, with or without Kobe. Even ‘06-vintage Kobe couldn’t take this team to a title. They are old, have a dearth of depth, and lack enough true offensive options. Still, Bryant’s rush to return from his Achilles injury made some sense in the idea that if he got back early enough, the team could still have some semblance of a season, and at least provide fans of the franchise with another playoff appearance.
Bryant’s knee injury however puts the playoffs all but out of the picture for the Lakeshow this season, and while it isn’t a topic I wouldn’t want to broach with Bryant personally, it may be in his, and the Lakers’ best interest if he stayed sidelined for the remainder of the season.
A common initial response to such a suggestion is disagreement, stemming from the fact that Bryant would never voluntarily sit on the sideline when he is even remotely capable of contributing. This is a valid point, as Bryant’s thirst, toughness, and tenacity are all well documented. The dude belongs on a basketball court, and considering all the accolades he has accumulated on one, who am I, or anyone else for that matter, to advocate that he avoid playing for even a second longer than he prefers?
But, the one thing Bryant has always put above everything else (except maybe money, but that’s a different discussion) is winning. Kobe has always been a competitor that wants to be the best, and at the end of the day, he will measure his own NBA success in championships, not games played or playoff appearances.
Thus, if you take a step back and peer at the bigger picture, overlooking the fact that Bryant would more than likely be against spending the rest of the season on the sideline, an argument could be made that his sitting out the remainder of the season would be smart, and could work to enhance his longevity, both as a player and as a leader of the Lakers.
If the team was a true title contender, the circumstances would be vastly different, but as it stands, aside from pride, the Lakers have little left to play for this season. The team just isn’t that good. They are not one of the league’s top-tier teams, but rather an aged bunch battling injury and cohesion issues. Bryant’s best efforts couldn’t propel this team deep into the playoff picture, and with limited mileage left on his NBA odometer, his energy and effort might be better spent preparing for what are likely his last two seasons as a Laker; two seasons for which he will be paid almost $50 million.
Bodies break down. Rehabilitating from one injury often puts unintended pressure on other areas of the body that then in turn break down themselves due to the added action. This was likely the case with Bryant’s newest knee injury. He wanted to get back out on the court for his team so badly that he may have jumped the gun a bit. Even additional playing weight, which he admitted he still had to shed upon his return from his Achilles injury, can greatly impact an athlete’s body structure, especially an athlete beginning their inevitable battle with Father Time, as Kobe is.
Rather than rushing back to play Superman and save his sinking squad that is at best first-round fodder for the West’s best, Bryant should concentrate on getting his own body back to tip-top shape; or as close to tip-top shape a 35 year old with 17 seasons of NBA experience can be in. This means bringing his body back to his preferred playing weight, addressing any lingering injury issues that could pop up again, and getting mentally prepared for the closing act of his career.
The Lakers lineup can’t contend as currently constructed, but with some tweaks in the offseason, like free agent acquisitions and a likely lottery pick in a stacked draft if Bryant did indeed decide to sit out the season, they could quickly catapult back to contender status. Nobody around the NBA is ready to write Kobe off completely, especially if he were to return fresh and focused with a new, competitive cast around him, which the Lakers could conceivably construct in the offseason.
Although the organization would likely feel the short-term sting of a season outside of the playoff picture without a suited-up superstar, it would likely be in the Lakers best interest if their fifty million dollar man didn’t rush back and risk re-injury in a throwaway season.
The Lakers aren’t going to win the NBA title this season. However, with some offseason adjustments, next season could be a different story. Kobe Bryant will be central to the team’s success for the next couple seasons, and considering the way this season has shaped up, it might be in Bryant’s and the Lakers’ best interest to prepare for, and focus on the future.