If Kobe Bryant's Sunday plans were to catch a Hollywood horror film, then he chose the perfect theatre for an afternoon matinee.
The injured guard was at Staples Center Sunday for the Los Angeles Lakers’ Game 4 playoff matchup against the San Antonio Spurs. What Bryant saw was a microcosm of what the team had become in his absence.
The Lakers were bludgeoned, 103-82, on their home floor, a loss that completed a San Antonio sweep. Los Angeles turned the ball over 21 times, helping the Spurs to 24 points before a crowd equal parts disgusted and resigned to the efforts of this motley crew.
In fact, it was only Bryant’s appearance—coming with a little less than nine minutes remaining in the game—that drew applause from Lakers fans on Sunday. No matter how poorly their team was doing, Lakers fans know when to pay honor to their fallen hero.
Perhaps more notable was the “coincidental” timing of Bryant’s public arrival. It came less than a minute after Dwight Howard, he of five turnovers and exactly two shot attempts in 21 minutes, received his second technical foul. As Howard exited through the tunnel, his ire was struck by Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. The 27-year-old center snapped and had to be escorted back to the locker room.
No one knows what was said between the two, and we may never. For all we know, Kupchak could have said something about Dwight’s mother (we highly doubt it).
But the symmetry between Howard’s jeered exit and Bryant’s ballyhooed arrival on crutches is jarring. It was the story of the fallen hero and the reviled bully. The petulant child taking his ball and going home while the wounded warrior descended to give the villagers hope.
Speaking after the game, Howard categorized his first season with the Lakers as a "nightmare," according to Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears:
Bryant, meanwhile, laughed when asked about his seven-foot teammate and sped off in a golf cart, per Arash Markazi of ESPN:
With Howard an impending free agent, there will be many who wonder if Sunday was the last time D12 walks out of the Staples Center in purple and gold. They better hope not. The problem for the Lakers—the one they placed themselves in—is that their future is married to a man who spawned a #DwightHowardIsMoreUselessThan trend on Twitter.
Management has spent every breath deifying him during the season, hopeful that he signs a new five-year pact in the offseason. But it’s a cold hard truth that this deification is a necessary evil for these Lakers, heading into an offseason with infinite more questions than answers.
And those questions begin with the most sobering of all: What comes next for Kobe Bryant?
In the short term, we know that answer is rehabilitation. Bryant, who tore his Achilles on April 12 against the Golden State Warriors, has a reported timetable of return between six and nine months. If that range seems both ambiguous and sanguine at the same time, that’s because it is. Achilles injuries are notoriously among the most difficult to return from, making Bryant’s range little more than a guesstimation.
Bleacher Report lead injury writer Will Carroll noted that a normal time frame for the injury is anywhere between 10 to 12 months, leaving Bryant’s six-to-nine-month range bordering on unrealistic. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs’ return from the injury six months later is a promising sign as Carroll notes, but the history for NBA players points in a direr direction.
Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus did a study last season when Los Angeles Clippers guard Chauncey Billups suffered a similar injury, and the prognosis was not good. Players rarely if ever come back from Achilles injuries as the same player they were pre-tear, and the results are especially dire for players of Bryant’s age.
Those findings are consistent of a recent paper written by Dr. Douglas Cerynik and Dr. Nirav H. Amin titled "Performance Outcomes after Repair of Complete Achilles Tendon Ruptures in National Basketball Association Players," which will appear in the next issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Deadspin’s Kyle Wagner broke down the paper, and the findings were jarring. Players who came back from an Achilles injury averaged 5.21 minutes per game in their first year back, an additional 4.42 minutes a night shaved off the following year. And their player efficiency ratings plummeted by 4.64 and 4.28 points in the first and second years, respectively.
Speaking with Wagner, Dr. Armin said Kobe’s age will play a huge factor in his recovery.
"There have been 18 [Achilles tendon ruptures] over a 23-year period, and Kobe's on the extreme end of the age range," Amin said. "Players of a similar age have generally not been able to return to play."
In a way, Billups’ 2012-13 season is an interesting case study of what the Lakers should expect from Bryant next year. Billups played in just 22 games this season while battling a series of ailments, and his numbers plummeted. He played over 10 minutes less per night (partly due to the Clippers’ depth, but still) and nearly sliced his points in half.
Of course, no injuries are created equal. And it’s true Billups was way further on his downslope than Bryant at the time of their respective injuries.
It’s possible that Bryant is a medical miracle whose healing powers supersede history—we’ve seen crazier things from the Black Mamba. History just suggests otherwise.
And that, more than anything, is why Bryant’s injury hangs over the Lakers heading into this offseason. For the first time in 17 years, they no longer know what they’re getting from Kobe Bryant—if anything. They don’t know where those 27.3 points, 6.0 assists, 5.6 rebounds and “give me the damn ball, we’re winning this thing” attitude will come from next season.
That uncertainty leaves the Lakers stuck. They need Howard, no matter how petulant. They need Steve Nash to come back, and to not be terrible when he does. They need to figure out what to do with Pau Gasol and if Mike D’Antoni is the right man to lead them.
They need an answer about what comes next for this franchise. Because for the first time in a long time, that answer no longer involves Kobe Bryant saving the day.