Why Kobe Bryant's Early Return from Injury Is Exactly What the NBA Needs

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2013

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 25:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers waits to be introduced before their game against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena on March 25, 2013 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When Kobe Bryant ruptured his Achilles, made two free throws in a tight game against the Golden State Warriors and then retreated to the locker room, everyone panicked. 

Well, not at first.

The underlying assumption seemed to be that Kobe would somehow find a way to return to action in the near future, simply because he's invulnerable and couldn't possibly have the same fatal flaw as a notable hero from the Trojan War. 

But once the extent of the injury was announced, the panic actually set in. Los Angeles Lakers fans were mortified that their superstar was out for an extended period of time, and NBA fans in general started preparing for the worst.

I can't see behind closed doors, but I'm assuming there was some panic in the league office as well. Kobe is just that much of a superstar. 

Well, now it looks like the Mamba is going to beat the odds and return from a devastating injury far sooner than humanly possible. According to B/R's injury expert, Will Carroll, he'll be playing for the Lakers on opening night: 

It's important to note that Carroll is speculating here, though. There's still uncertainty surrounding Kobe's return to the lineup, as the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina made clear: 

More time has passed in Kobe Bryant’s recovery from a torn left Achilles tendon. But the Lakers star still hasn’t received any clarity as how that will translate when he returns to the basketball court.

‘I don’t know [whether] that means I’ll start the season—I hope so,” Bryant said in a recent interview to Time Out Dubai to promote his upcoming trip there later this month to host a basketball clinic.

When Kobe hopes for something, he usually works pretty darn hard to get it. 

An early return would be great news for so many people. 

Kobe, obviously, because he'd be getting to play. Lakers fans as well, because they'd get to enjoy the possibility of cheering on No. 24 for the full 82-game stretch. 

But, perhaps most significantly, the NBA in general would be able to rejoice. His early return from injury is exactly what the league needs. 


League Needs the Lakers to be Competitive

Think back to a time when the Lakers weren't particularly good. It's tough, right? 

This franchise has been around since 1948-49, when George Mikan and Jim Pollard led the Minneapolis Lakers to the BAA Finals and took down the Washington Capitols. Since that season—so long ago that we're almost ready for Abraham Lincoln to quantify it—the Lake Show has missed the postseason just five times. 

There was a rough season in 1957-58, then nothing but playoff appearances until the mid-'70s, when the franchise missed out in back-to-back seasons. Next, you have to go all the way to 1993-94, then 2004-05 for the final absence. 

2013-14 might be the sixth regular-season-only campaign, but the early return of Kobe would at least keep things close. 

While the Dwight Howard version of the Lakers was massively disappointing, it still managed to sneak past that 82nd game of the season. And the drama was incredible. Every game was the subject of non-stop discussion, and the NBA world seemed to revolve around what the team in purple and gold would do on a nightly basis. 

Even though other teams were far better and actually had shots to take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy at the end of the year, it was the Lakers who drew the attention. Axiomatic as this may be, it was simply because they are the Lakers. 

For proof, you need only turn to the league's attendance figures, as shown by ESPN

L.A. finished seventh in home attendance, drawing "only" 99.7 percent of the Staples Center's capacity crowd on a nightly basis. But it was the road where the franchise stood out. Take a look at the road percentage filled for the eight Western Conference playoff teams from the 2012-13 campaign: 

Only one team had better numbers on the road: the Miami Heat. That's just what happens when you boast a trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The fact that the Lakers are even in the same category as the defending champions that feature the league MVP is rather telling.

With Kobe, the Lakers are at least competitive. They may not make the playoffs—the Western Conference is just too strong this year—but they'll at least remain in the hunt and continue to carry with them lots of intrigue.

Without him...



Individual Popularity

I'm a big proponent of the "bar-fight" test. 

Let's keep this hypothetical so I'm not responsible for any broken noses, but think about going into a bar and speaking just the name of an NBA player. There are a select few names that would instantly provoke enough of an argument that violence could ultimately be the result. 

Going into the 2013-14 season, we have six: 

  • LeBron James, because duh. 
  • Kobe Bryant, because there's a rather large disparity between his fans and his detractors. 
  • Derrick Rose, because no one knows what to expect from him as he returns from his ACL injury. 
  • Rajon Rondo, because some think he's just a product of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett's greatness. 
  • Carmelo Anthony, because he represents the battle between efficiency and volume. 
  • Russell Westbrook, because of his shot selection and inconsistent play. 

The league is better when those six players are healthy and active. They provide plenty of intrigue and conversational topics for NBA fans, regardless of the team that they support. It's hard to avoid having an opinion on one of the bar-fight guys. 

Now that the overwhelming vitriol directed in LeBron's general direction has died down as a result of his team's prowess (winning is the ultimate panacea), Kobe has ascended back into the No. 1 spot on the bar-fight list. You can't say anything positive about him without accusations of Homerism, and you can't say anything negative without being called a "hater." 

That's just the way it goes with the Mamba. 

But at the same time, he remains one of the most popular athletes in the world. 

The official numbers for jersey sales in 2012-13 have yet to come out, but we have them from 2011-12, courtesy of Forbes.com. That year, Kobe finished third in sales throughout the United States, trailing only Rose and Jeremy Lin (remember, that was during the height of Linsanity). But internationally, he claimed the No. 1 spot. 

The NBA is just better when all of the premier stars are healthy and playing on a nightly basis. As deep as the league is, one superstar makes a massive difference because he can change the relevancy of an entire organization. 

I don't mean to look down upon role players who are absolutely vital to the championship cause and really make the Association function, but which is a bigger deal: Rose missing the entire season or Marquis Teague hypothetically tearing his ACL? 

Not all players are equal in terms of popularity and import, and Kobe is right at the top of the list.


Pursuit of History

Kobe has never been shy about chasing the historical greats, and while ring No. 6 is still the ultimate goal, you have to wonder how much he thinks about catching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

The career scoring title is a coveted record, and the Mamba is still on pace to end up at No. 1 if he plays long enough. Every game missed hinders that pursuit and makes it more of a long shot, though. 

Back in February 2012, I wrote about Kobe's chances of passing Kareem and broke down the pace he'd need to maintain in order to do so. Here's the original chart, reprinted for your viewing pleasure: 

YearAgePPGGPSeasonal PointsBehind Kareem
2016-173821.0751,575594 ahead

Obviously, time has elapsed since going through that exercise. How does it compare now?

Kareem—surprise, surprise—is still stuck on 38,387. Kobe is back in fourth place, trailing Karl Malone and Michael Jordan with 31,617. That means through the 2012-13 season, he's 6,770 behind and slightly trailing the pace I set for him. 

It's already an aggressive pace, one that requires him to play many more seasons at a high level. He can't afford to miss much time at all for the rest of his career if he hopes to achieve this lofty goal and go down in the record books for one more reason. 

The pursuit is also good for the NBA, as it provides the league with yet another great plot. More storylines are never a bad thing, especially when they involve a superstar and one of the most coveted numbers in the sport's history. 

As NBA.com's Jonathan Hartzell writes, though, that's not the only milestone Kobe is chasing in 2013-14: 

Bryant will face his biggest challenge this summer as he attempts to successfully rehab from a torn Achilles’ tendon suffered in mid-April. But when he does return, he’ll have multiple milestones in clear sight. The most important milestone for Bryant is points as he needs only 676 points to pass Michael Jordan for third all time. It will take Bryant nearly 300 more games than Jordan played to pass His Airness, but that doesn’t diminish the milestone’s significance.  Bryant also needs 113 assists to become only the 30th player in NBA history to reach 6,000 and 532-free throw attempts to become only the fifth player to attempt at least 10,000 free throws. The other four who’ve done it: Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone, and Karl Malone. That’s okay company.

The Mamba has essentially reached the point in his career where every game has historical ramifications. Ideally, he can maximize the number of those games, because so much rides on him doing exactly that. 

It's more than just his individual pursuits and ability to help out the Lakers rather dramatically, though. Those are both important, but not quite as relevant as what Kobe means to the NBA in general. 

The product is just better when he's on the floor. 

Kobe is a once-in-a-generation star who creates plenty of highlights, plays fantastic basketball, draws crowds wherever he goes and boosts the overall popularity of the league each and every night. Every game matters, and an early return from injury is exactly what the NBA needs. 

All we need to hear before the start of the 2013-14 campaign is "Mamba in."