Will Kobe Bryant's Declining Health Allow Him to Finish Contract with Lakers?

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Will Kobe Bryant's Declining Health Allow Him to Finish Contract with Lakers?
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It's only a matter of time before the Chicken Littles of the NBA are out in full force, crowing about a celestial collapse involving the Los Angeles Lakers.

Assuming such a chorale hasn't already commenced.

Not on account of an 0-8 stumble through the preseason, though going winless is never a good thing, even when the games themselves are little more than glorified scrimmages.

The torrent of turnovers and miscues on both ends of the floor were troubling, if not completely predictable amidst the anomie accompanying a dramatic summer shake-up of scheme, coaching staff and roster.

What was most disconcerting about the Lakers' month of October wasn't what they did, but rather what they didn't do toward the end, and why.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
I'm referring, of course, to playing Kobe Bryant.

The Lakers' seminal superstar missed the last two games of the exhibition season on account of a strain in his right foot stemming from a happenstance collision with Sacramento Kings rookie Thomas Robinson on October 21. 

How severe is the resulting pain and discomfort?

Kobe claims he wouldn't have played in Wednesday's game regardless of the implications, and he didn't even make the trip down to San Diego for the preseason finale on Thursday.

That may not seem like anything out of the ordinary for the average player, who's bound to be sidelined by something or other at some point during the course of a season.

But Kobe isn't the average player, to say the least. He's one of the toughest players (if not the toughest) in the NBA today—a claim to which a plurality of general managers will readily attest. 

He's not an iron man by any strict, consecutive-games-played definition, but the guy fights through pain like few others ever have.

Sprained ankles? Sore knees? How about a shooting hand with sprained ligaments, arthritic joints and broken bones?

These are all mere nuisances in the world of Kobe Bryant—Invincible Basketball Superhero.

That is, until they aren't, and until he isn't.

His demeanor this preseason has been less that of the Kobe of old and more that of an old Kobe.

The stubborn, combative, bulldogish persona of yesteryear isn't gone, per se, but it does seem to have ceded significant ground to an older, wiser, more reflective state of being, as Bryant's candid comments of late regarding his impending retirement would suggest.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Not that Kobe's competitive fire has yet been extinguished, or that he's no longer a productive player. If anything, Bryant's preseason numbers (20.4 points, 50 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from three) point to a player who still has plenty of fuel left in the tank, especially now that he has a more efficient outfit into which to feed the fuel.

It's perfectly reasonable that Kobe would feel comfortable leaving the team's fate in the hands of Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash—even more so during the preseason—so as to rest his 34-year-old frame.

But that's not exactly the case here. Kobe is in serious pain, to the point where he might miss the October 30 season opener against the Dallas Mavericks.

As Mike Brown told Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com:

"Oh, he's hurt. I don't know what that means, but he is hurt. He's a tough guy. He's one of the toughest guys I've ever been around."

And when a tough guy can't play, you know there's something wrong.

What's more, Kobe can't be expected to just "walk it off" whenever he encounters physical distress. At his age and with his historic mileage, Bryant's not only more susceptible than ever to injury, but he's also less likely to recover in short order.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
To the extent that the results of the evaluation of his foot this weekend could have ramifications extending far beyond a single game.

If everything checks out, Kobe will be back on the court in short order. If not, he'll be sporting street clothes on national TV on Halloween eve and the concerns about his viability, long-term and short, will persist.

Kobe has said himself that he doesn't want to play if he can't do so at an elite level, that he has no desire to just hang around as long as he can.

What if this injury, or an injury yet to come, saps him of such ability? What if his foot is and remains in such pain that he can't perform up to his own standards? 

Would such a drop-off steer Kobe into retirement before his current contract comes due in 2014?

Perhaps, though that seems unlikely.

Professional athletes of Kobe's caliber are loath to call it quits on terms other than their own, with pride and ego playing integral parts in such persistence.

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He's certainly determined enough, competitive enough and stubborn enough to exhaust every possible option before making any drastic career moves.

That much became clear when Kobe flew to Germany for an experimental procedure on his knee prior to last season, during which time he allegedly contemplated retirement.

That thought has crossed Kobe's mind on many occasions, it seems, but so too has the inverse—that he doesn't want to step aside just yet, that he's hungry to keep bolstering his legacy while chasing down ghosts of basketball's past.

Then again, intense foot pain isn't something you can just ignore, unless you've been blessed with Jedi mind powers (or a hefty helping of cortisone).

If Kobe can't put pressure on his foot, then he can't play basketball. It's that simple.

But before we let the Chicken Little Brigade panic over apocalyptic predictions, let's take a deep breath, settle down and wait to see what long-time Lakers trainer Gary Vitti has to say about the situation...

Then everyone can jam on the panic button as they please.


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