Nothing has come easy for the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks.
Melo's return to the Mile High City to face the Denver Nuggets was marred by both a Knicks loss and him being forced out of the game in the third quarter with a sore right knee. He has since returned to New York, where he will likely have fluid drained out of his knee in hopes of returning "quickly."
Like Anthony, Kobe was also forced out of Los Angeles' loss to the Atlanta Hawks, though he was removed with just over two seconds remaining.
On a potentially game-tying fadeaway, the Black Mamba hit the floor, suffered what is being called a "severe sprain" in his left ankle and is out indefinitely.
Neither injury is ideal, and both are potentially detrimental. The Lakers and Knicks are at a crucial point in their season, and each team needs their primary pillar to finish out the year strong.
Without either of them, both teams are liable to suffer a complete collapse.
Unlike Bryant, Melo's was a pre-existing injury.
New York's star forward missed the previous three games heading into a bout against the Golden State Warriors. Said contest saw him unable to navigate the floor without grimacing, and he finished with 14 points on just 4-of-15 shooting from the field.
Still, Anthony played in his return to Denver. How could he not? Two years had passed since he forced a trade to the Knicks. Despite his attempts to downplay the situation, he needed closure.
That "closure" has come at a price. A steep one. Anthony is now a lock to miss time. How much, we don't know, but he's out for now.
According to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, Melo does hope to return to action soon, though:
It started stiffening up. There were some movements I couldn't make. Moving laterally, I didn't feel like I had any pop, any power. So I tried it in the second half, coming back after halftime, and I couldn't move out there. I'm going to get it drained, get the fluid out, get to the bottom of it quickly so I can get back on the court.
Not exactly encouraging.
Melo's not a doctor. If he were, he probably would have told himself he couldn't play against the Nuggets (or Warriors). If he were a doctor, he would have likely had his knee drained already.
Yet, this is where he and the Knicks stand.
Losers of four out of their last five, the Knicks are now tasked with carrying on without their best player. Championship contenders are known for their ability to spit in the face adversity, and there is no such thing as a convenient injury, but this couldn't have come at a worse time.
New York is locked in a battle with the Indiana Pacers for second place in the Eastern Conference. Knowing that one spot will be the difference between playing the Atlanta Hawks (or Milwaukee Bucks) and the Boston Celtics only increases the urgency behind closing the 1.5-game gap Indiana now holds.
But the Knicks won't be able to do that without Melo. He ranks second in scoring (27.5 points per game), and their offense is scoring 4.4 points more per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
Forget the stats. He's their best player, their closer, the face of their franchise. New York has invested everything it has in Melo, tailored this team and coaching staff to his liking. Life without him isn't going to be easy.
If you're an optimist, you might point to the Knicks' 5-6 record without Anthony this season. You could say that's not so bad. You definitely look to the Melo-less victory over the Miami Heat. And you certainly point toward the near-Anthony-less victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Because logic dictates the Knicks can weather this storm. They're built around Anthony, but a majority of their success is predicated on their supporting cast, most notably their bench, which ranks second in points scored a night (40.6).
Although that's all true, we can hardly like New York's chances at playing .500 basketball sans Anthony if they're also down Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. The latter suffered a contusion to his left knee against Denver as well. There's no telling if he'll have to miss any time or how long he'll be out if he does.
For those keeping score at home, the Knicks currently have more than $53 million wrapped up this season in three players with knee problems. I would say the term "yikes" applies here.
Looking ahead, six of New York's next 10 games come against teams above .500. The Knicks are 1-3 against such clubs without Melo, a small sample size, but troubling all the same.
Four of those games come against two division rivals in the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics. The Raptors trail the Knicks by 14 games, but the Celtics are just 3.5 games behind the Knicks. Should Melo miss extensive time, falling behind Boston isn't implausible.
Without Melo (and Chandler and Stoudemire), it doesn't seem like the Knicks could win their division. Deron Williams and the Brooklyn Nets trail New York by just one game and could make a play for that second or third seed.
Falling to the fourth seed then paves the way for a first-round matchup against the Chicago Bulls, who have beaten the Knicks three times this season.
Even with Melo in the fold, the road ahead for New York was a tough one. The Knicks were tasked with catching the Pacers while staving off the Nets. Now they could be asked to do that without one of the 10 best players in the league, among others.
And in an Eastern Conference, where going from second to fourth place could mean the difference between a series victory and another opening-round ousting, that's huge.
Kobe played in every one of Los Angeles' first 66 games, and still the Lakers currently have just a half-game cushion over the Jazz.
I shudder to imagine where they'd be without him. Or how far they'll fall if they're actually forced to play on without him, for that matter.
We all know that Bryant would play with missing limbs if he had to, but the severity of his sprain is really nothing to joke about. Following Los Angeles' loss to Atlanta, he said it was the worst sprain he had suffered since the 2000 playoffs.
Mike Trudell @LakersReporter
Kobe said this is as bad a sprain as he's had since 2000 playoffs. He "doesn't know" how it will respond, when he'll return.2013-3-14 03:01:43
Now almost 13 years older, there's no optimism to be found there.
What we do find is a panic button that, much like the New York faithful, the Lakers may have to hit without Bryant.
Los Angeles isn't in a position where the team could lose the division or fall a few spots in the playoff seeding. The Lakers are at a point where they could fall out of the playoff picture all together.
Bryant and Co. spent almost the entire season on the outside of the postseason bubble looking in. Winners of nine out of 12 since the All-Star break, it appeared they were finally on the inside, and fated to stay there.
But then this.
Last season, the Lakers were 4-4 without Bryant, a respectable record considering how much he means to their offense. But simply playing .500 basketball from here on out won't get the job done.
The magic number for Los Angeles to hit is 43, meaning that nine of the team's last 16 games must culminate in a victory for the Lakers to procure a playoff berth.
Looking ahead, eight of their last 16 contests are against teams above .500. Los Angeles is just 13-24 against winning outfits this season. And that's with Kobe. There's no telling how much worse they would have fared without him.
Dwight Howard's recent resurgence comes as some comfort. He carried the Orlando Magic for the better part of decade. Surely he can do it for the Lakers, even if only temporarily.
Except this isn't the Eastern Conference where one player makes all the difference. As the Lakers have shown time and time again, four stars don't even always make the difference. Howard has been unable to propel the Lakers toward dominance with Kobe—how is he supposed to do it without him?
Los Angeles is at a severe disadvantage without its leading scorer. Bryant tallies 27.5 points per contest (tied for second with Melo), and the Lakers offense is 7.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.
They can't just replace him. Not when he's irreplaceable.
Which Team Is in More Trouble?
That would be the Lakers.
Neither the Knicks nor the Lakers are going to play like contenders if either of their stars miss any time, but it isn't New York which is in danger of missing the playoffs. It also isn't New York which is 12-21 on the road and housing a bench that ranks 28th in points per game (26.6).
At times like these, you need depth. New York doesn't have as much of it if Chandler is forced to miss time alongside Melo and Amar'e, but it has more than Los Angeles.
And let's face it, the Knicks play four more games against Western Conference teams, while the Lakers have 14. Even the lottery-bound aggregates out West have some fight in them. I mean, of course they do, when the Lakers have the potential to be one of them.
This isn't to say the Lakers won't make the playoffs, because they still could. We don't know how much time Kobe is going to miss.
Assuming that both Bryant and Anthony are decommissioned, though, it's the Lakers who have more to worry about and more to lose than the Knicks.
And it's the Lakers who will struggle more.