The refrain from faithful Los Angeles Lakers fans has been the same from the moment Kobe Bryant went down last year with a torn Achilles: "Just you wait—No. 24 will be back and better than ever next year."
A quick scan through the facts shows that Bryant has quite a hill to climb—in the sense that Mt. Everest is a hill.
If he somehow manages to return to an All-Star level, Bryant would be the first guard of his age to do so following a major surgery. According to Basketball-Reference, only seven backcourt players aged 35 or older (Bryant will turn 35 before the 2013-14 season) have ever made the All-Star team.
And none of them did so after sustaining an injury as career-threatening as Bryant's.
Compounding the unlikelihood of a potential Bryant resurgence is the horrible track record of players who've sustained his particular injury. Only Dominique Wilkins, who tore his Achilles at age 32, managed to come back looking like the player he was before his injury.
But as Kyle Wagner of Deadspin points out:
At the time of his injury, Dominique had played 27,482 minutes over 10 seasons (playoffs included). Kobe, now in his 17th year, has logged 54,041 minutes. He's just two years older than Wilkins was at the time of his injury, but he has twice as much pro basketball mileage on his legs. And that doesn't even take into account Kobe's slogs through international competition (another 37 games started).
Not particularly encouraging, is it?
But believers in Bryant aren't interested in facts, and they're firmly convinced that the Lakers star is capable of bucking every trend and returning to his dominant form. It's a hard sell, but here's the case for Bryant terrorizing the league upon his return.
Something to Prove
One of the most common motivational mindsets in professional sports centers around the belief in external doubt. There are many forms, but some are especially familiar. Teams constantly pump themselves up with rhetoric like "It's us against the world" and "Nobody believes in us."
And for Bryant, a hyper-competitive player who concocts naysayers out of thin air in much the same way Michael Jordan did, the presence of real doubt is going to be major motivation.
Expect Bryant to attack his rehab, pushing his legendary work habits to another level. There's no more than a shred of a chance that anyone in Bryant's situation can come back at full strength, but knowing that most people have already counted him out will give No. 24 an army of doubters to prove wrong.
Observers who have taken an objective view of Bryant's prognosis largely concluded (as I have) that the odds are hopelessly stacked against his full recovery.
But to Bryant, those doubts could be the very things that ignite his built-in defiance and supercharge his rehab efforts.
Most of the time, players have to lie to themselves when they use the "Nobody believes in us" gimmick. That won't be the case for Bryant; most people really don't believe in his ability to come back.
Money talks, right?
Bryant will make about $30 million on the last year of his deal in 2013-14. And even though he's already made nearly $250 million in career salary (per Basketball-Reference), the competitor in him will find a little extra motivation to prove he can still command top dollar.
There's already been plenty of media buzz over Bryant's unwillingness to take an outright pay cut after next season, so he'll be out to show that if he does agree to take a little less money on his next contract, it'll be because he wants to.
Not because the market says he has to.
Admittedly, there's some overlap between this reason and the last; pride plays a huge factor in both. Players measure themselves against one another by comparing overall performance, but dollars matter, too.
Max players want to be paid like max players, and superstars like Bryant want to hang onto their ultra-rich throwback salaries.
Aside from wanting to prove he's still among the league's best players, Bryant's comeback could also be driven by his desire to show the NBA that he still deserves to be paid like one.
Stick It to Dwight
Bryant can say he wishes the best for former teammate Dwight Howard all he wants. But everyone knows he's seething inside over D12's departure from the Lakers.
During talks between the Lakers and Howard, the big man and his camp made plenty of inquiries into Bryant's future with the team. The implicit meaning behind those questions was that Howard wanted control of the franchise, and, more importantly, he wanted Bryant out of the picture.
Howard and his representatives—in a handful of meetings with Lakers officials before he became a free agent July 1—strongly suggested the center would have a difficult time re-signing with the team if Bryant stayed with the franchise beyond the 2013-14 season, the final year of his contract.
As an offshoot of those discussions, sources said, Howard's camp at one point asked the Lakers whether they were at least considering releasing Bryant through the league's amnesty provision, since Bryant's return date from Achilles tendon surgery remained in question.
Bryant probably doesn't care that Howard disliked him personally. He's got to be used to teammates bristling at his in-your-face leadership by now.
But what will absolutely motivate Bryant in his return is the knowledge that one of the league's other stars wanted nothing to do with him as a teammate.
Howard didn't think Bryant was capable of leading the Lakers, and that's not going to sit well with Kobe.
The NBA schedules haven't been released yet, but the Lakers and Rockets are only going to play one another three or four times next year. The Mamba will reserve some special venom for those contests, but Howard's disrespect might have created a monster that takes out his anger on every opponent.
Something Jordan Never Did
If you close your eyes and listen to Bryant talk, it's often striking how similar his cadence, phrasing and word choice mirrors Jordan's.
And when you watch Bryant play, it's abundantly clear that he has patterned a huge portion of his game after M.J.'s. The footwork, the fadeaways, the late emergence of a killer post game. It's all there.
Don't worry; we're not going down the dangerous road of comparing Jordan and Bryant. That's a topic for another day.
But given all of ways in which he has patterned his game and his demeanor after His Airness, it's undeniable that there's at least some part of Bryant that measures himself against Jordan.
And one thing Jordan never did was come back from a major late-career injury.
M.J. broke his foot in his second season and returned better than ever, but that hardly compares to the devastation of a torn Achilles at the end of season No. 17. If Bryant works his way back from this, his legend will contain a stunning resurrection that Jordan's never had.
Look, Bryant is engaged in a staredown with history, logic and medical science—all of which say he'll never again be the player he was. But you're crazy if you think he'll be the one to blink first.
It's a long shot, and there's really no credible evidence to support the theory, but if you're willing to put that aside and focus on Bryant's insane competitive drive and desire to prove everyone wrong, there's a case to be made that he'll make it back.
Whether it ends up being successful or not, Kobe Bryant will be on a mission next season.
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