Managing Kobe Bryant's Return from Injury Is Mike D'Antoni's Toughest Task Yet

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Managing Kobe Bryant's Return from Injury Is Mike D'Antoni's Toughest Task Yet
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Mike D'Antoni hasn't coached Kobe Bryant yet. Not really.

Taking the reigns of the Los Angeles Lakers midway through November, Magic Mike stood on the sidelines, crossed his arms, bellowed out plays on occasion and balanced the insufferable ego of Dwight Howard with the bruised psyche of Pau Gasol.

His new position stipulated he manage the minutes and decisions of 13 to 14 other players, Superman included. It even required that he experiment and re-engineer his systematic ideals to befit the strengths of his players.

What he didn't do, what he never had to do was coach Kobe. I mean really coach Kobe. 

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Can't say I envy MDA at the moment.

Seventeen years deep into his career, there was no coaching Kobe. That is, unless he needed to be coached, which he didn't.

Last season he didn't need any external guidance, and D'Antoni couldn't afford to give him any. Not with the Lakers falling as far as 17-25 and seemingly unable to successfully navigate the labyrinth of injuries, social conflicts and chemistry issues in their midst.

There was no circumventing the potential lottery finish without the Black Mamba on the floor. These Lakers, lost and decrepit, don't make the playoffs if Kobe doesn't average 38.6 minutes a night over the course of 78 games.

We saw what happened when Howard saddled up as Los Angeles' lifeline after the team clinched the very playoff berth Kobe willed them toward. Four straight losses, an embarrassing ejection and one predictable postseason exit later the results weren't pretty.

If you thought most of the regular season was ugly, imagine how it would have unfolded without Kobe doing what he did. Not just some of it, all of it. The minutes, the points, the assists—all of it.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
If not Kobe, then who were the Lakers to turn to last season? Dwight? Funny.

Chaos would have ruled the streets of Hollywood and the Staples Center more than it ultimately did. Remember that.

Then accept that whatever Kobe did, D'Antoni had essentially nothing to do with. He never had to genuinely coach Kobe, and that includes policing his minutes like a Bill Belichick-imposed curfew for Rob Gronkowski on away trips.

Which is why when Kobe went down with a torn Achilles 80 games into the season, it wasn't on D'Antoni. The notion that he knowingly abused Kobe is ridiculous. Utter insanity.

D'Antoni is widely criticized for his extended use of players who are later deemed unfit to log as many minutes as they do. Like with the New York Knicks for instance.

In his first season at the helm, he "allowed" the injury-prone Amar'e Stoudemire to average 36.8 minutes a night. Since that 2010-11 crusade, in which STAT appeared in 78 games, the six-time All-Star has missed 72 of a possible 148 regular-season bouts, or 48.6 percent. Clearly D'Antoni pushed him too far. His knees couldn't handle that much action, that much responsibility.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Neither Kobe nor STAT's injuries can be blamed on MDA.

Allow me to call "applesauce" now. That's how dumb this notion is—it can be measured in applesauce.

Stoudemire's demise was unfortunate, albeit predictable. But it was not D'Antoni's fault. It's on New York for handing $100 million over to a fragile big man then retrospectively expecting its coach to limit his minutes.

Tell me what sideline meanderer wouldn't play a lone 28-year-old superstar 35-plus minutes per game if it meant the franchise in question securing a postseason berth for the first time in more than a half-decade. I'll promptly tell you you're wrong, because you will be.

Just as those who blame D'Antoni for Kobe's injury are deluded.

Never mind that MDA tried to remove the Mamba from games only to be rebuffed by the future Hall of Famer himself. And never mind that not even Mitch Kupchak couldn't appeal to the mortal side of Kobe. 

"His message to me was, 'Mitch, I hear what you're saying, but we've got to get in the playoffs,'" Kupchak told CBS Sports' Ken Berger. "'And I'm playing and there's nothing you can do about it.'"

But yeah, what happened to Kobe against the Golden State Warriors was on D'Antoni. Sure.

There was no dissuading Kobe from playing 40 or more minutes 30 times last season, no discouraging him from becoming the 10th player since 1985, aged 34 or older, to do that in a single season.

The minutes Kobe played last season weren't an aberration.

Kobe has played 40 or minutes 530 times throughout his career. Only Karl Malone (585) and Allen Iverson (651) have accomplished the same feat more times since 1985.

So don't persecute D'Antoni for what transpired last season. Or even Kobe himself. Blame the Mamba's insane will to win. There's simply been no stopping him because there's been no reason to.

Until now, that is.

D'Antoni is about to embark on a journey no coach of Kobe's has ever had to before, not even Phil Jackson.

Kobe is coming back from injury and the Lakers may or may not be headed for a playoff berth, each of which are situations No. 24 has found himself in before. But not like this.

Achilles ruptures are no ordinary injuries, and the last time the Lakers were faced with the prospect of missing the playoffs, it was 2005, Kobe was 26 and in no need of being held to a minutes cap.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
The chain of command needs to change.

That all changes leading into the 2013-14 season, for Kobe, for D'Antoni—for everyone.

His somewhat irrational will to win isn't going anywhere. "Tanking" isn't in Kobe's (or the Lakers') vocabulary. There is no "off" button.

Ten games over .500, or ten games under, Kobe is going to want to play, to stay in the game. Injured or not, he's going to try and play. Exactly like last season.

Only different.

Now is when Kobe needs to be coached, when D'Antoni's will must trump that of the Mamba's. 

More than a playoff berth is on the line next season. Previously, the Lakers (Kobe included) were playing for Howard's lasting affections. Missing the playoffs would have all but guaranteed he bolted.

Eventually, he fled Los Angeles for Houston anyway, but the Lakers had to put everything they had into convincing him to stay. They're on no such mission now.

Missing the postseason won't mark the end of the Lakers or Kobe as we know it. Ambitions have shifted toward next summer, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and a gob of other superstars are projected to be available for the taking.

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To give themselves the most realistic of chances at landing one or more of the available superstars, the Lakers need Kobe. A healthy-as-can-be Kobe.

Risking further injury by permitting him to disperse his own minutes at personal discretion finally makes no sense. The Lakers have bigger plans, more on the line than where they finish next season.

There will be times, late in the game or otherwise, when Kobe's propensity for overruling D'Antoni is permissible. On most occasions, however, it's up to Magic Mike to rule Kobe with an iron fist, in a way he has never been governed before.

Too much is at stake for D'Antoni to let Kobe's aberrant stubbornness continue to rule the day. D'Antoni's job, for one, along with Los Angeles' imminent future.

A future that still includes the Mamba if, and only if, D'Antoni is up to the task of usurping Kobe's deep-seated desire to play, to win at any personal cost necessary.

Godspeed, Mike.

 

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