The Los Angeles Lakers suffered one of the most devastating blows in franchise history during the 2012-13 NBA regular season, as leader Kobe Bryant sustained a torn Achilles tendon. Roughly four months later, Bryant is making strides that no one expected to see.
Even still, Kobe must remain patient on the road to recovery.
In June, just two months removed from the debilitating injury, Bryant told Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles that he hopes to return for the Lakers' season-opener. Many have taken that as a guarantee, but Bryant has since made it clear that he's taking his time and covering all bases.
According to Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register, we will have an updated timetable as soon as next week.
Critical news for the Lakers.
If Bryant is to return for the Lakers' season-opener against the Los Angeles Clippers on Oct. 29, he will have made a full recovery in exactly 200 days. That's six months and 17 days since Apr. 12, when Kobe suffered one of the most crippling injuries in professional sports.
If he ends up being ready, it'll be yet another example of basketball's most revered competitor defying the odds. If he's not, it'll hardly be surprising, as the estimated time frame for recovery from an Achilles tendon tear is 6-to-9 months for a young athlete, per Dr. Eugone Hong of Philly.com.
That "young" part is where we begin.
34 Years Old
Placed above is a video of Kobe running on an anti-gravity treadmill via his official Instagram account. Seeing as we're roughly four months removed from the date of the injury, that's beyond incredible.
It defies all logic for a 34-year-old.
This is yet another development in what has been a timetable-shattering recovery process. Not only does it have Bryant on pace for an unbelievably early return to action, but it has many in the NBA community in awe.
During a recent interview with TWC SportsNet, former Lakers great Shaquille O'Neal made it clear that he believes Kobe will return "early."
"I’m sure Kobe is going to come back early," said Shaquille O’Neal. "Anything before nine months is early. Him making the first game, I wish him well. He’s a very, very competitive kid. He loves the naysayers. He loves proving people wrong...When he put the rumor out there that he may be back the first game, best believe he’s trying to come back the first game,” O’Neal continued.
And that's what's scary—a 34-year-old man is already on pace to shatter the expected timetable by three months.
Bryant's competitive spirit may not be aging, but his body is, and that's something the Lakers must take into account. Even as he does things at 34 that most dream of at 24, Bryant is a human being.
As the body ages, recovery from injuries takes more time, even if Father Time has failed to defeat Kobe just yet. Key word: yet.
If he comes back early from this injury, suffering an aggravation could be season-threatening. We saw that with Steve Nash in 2012-13, who, like Bryant, is viewed as one of the NBA's true warriors, yet couldn't take the court in 32 regular season games due to a rushed return from a small leg fracture.
It's hard to say deny Kobe playing time, but we are talking about the team that watched him fall to the ground, clenching his leg multiple times before actually tearing his Achilles tendon. For that reason, if anyone is going to stop Bryant, it must be himself.
If he doesn't, the Lakers may lose their only hope of competing.
Lakers' Last Run
The Lakers enter the 2012-13 regular season with a superstar core of Bryant, Pau Gasol and Nash. Those three men would be viewed as an elite trio on any other team, but because this is the Lakers, every flaw is placed under a magnifying glass.
With that being said, the Lakers have a chance to contend and will do so with the tandem of Kobe and Gasol that has already won two NBA championships during their time together. Due to their impending free agency, however, it may just be their run.
Why throw that all away just to have Kobe back for the first few games of the season?
If L.A. is to stand any chance of contending for one last title, they'll need Bryant to be at full strength. Gasol and Nash can keep the Lakers at .500, and if we put our biases aside, they're even a postseason-caliber tandem.
Keep in mind, Nash led the Phoenix Suns to a .500 season in 2011-12 with Marcin Gortat playing second-fiddle. With all due respect to Gortat, a strong two-way player, Gasol is in another stratosphere when healthy.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, Nash and Gasol's health means nothing if Kobe isn't there with them. Fortunately, Bryant came up with a solution that could placate all parties.
During his "Kobe Up Close" interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Bryant made it clear that he plans on maintaining good health by utilizing a surprising strategy: cutting into his minutes.
Can you blame him?
Despite missing the final four games of the season, Bryant was fourth in the NBA in minutes played and second in minutes per game at 38.6. If the Lakers are hoping to have him available for the playoffs, that number must be cut down by at least five minutes a night.
If it is, the Lakers will be able to maximize the value of both Kobe and their drastically improved second unit.
If head coach Mike D'Antoni continues to play Bryant past his ideal number—an average of 45.2 minutes in April suggests he could—the Lakers will face the consequences. Bryant is still one of the top five players in the NBA, but with his age and health both serving as question marks, caution is Los Angeles' best friend.
It's on Bryant to be the one to play within his own limits and protect the Lakers during the regular season.