Why the Los Angeles Lakers Are Handling Kobe Bryant's Return Perfectly

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Why the Los Angeles Lakers Are Handling Kobe Bryant's Return Perfectly
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers owe the Chicago Bulls a debt of gratitude.

No, not just because former general manager Jerry Krause's poor relationship with Phil Jackson may well have driven the Zen Master out of the Windy City after the Bulls' last championship season—though the result of that split is certainly worth pondering on the occasion of Jackson's 68th birthday.

And not just because Michael Jordan laid out a blueprint for brilliance that Kobe Bryant later followed about as closely as anyone has or likely ever will.

Rather, in the smaller, more immediate picture, it's another blueprint put forth by the Bulls—that of how not to handle a superstar's recovery in the media—that LA appears to be following with the Black Mamba, wittingly or otherwise.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The Lakers have already gone out of their way to avoid a recovery-related debacle like the one into which the Bulls fell with Derrick Rose last season. As Lakers spokesman John Black recently told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times"We're going to avoid giving a target return date until he's doing full weight-bearing running and on-court basketball activities, at the earliest."

Black's update on the Mamba's condition wasn't bleak by any means, though he made it clear that Kobe's return will be contingent on much more than just the condition of his surgically repaired Achilles tendon:

He's progressing well and has met all the targets and milestones of his rehab, and we expect him to make a full recovery. One of the key issues is to make sure he builds up strength and endurance not only in his Achilles but also in his legs, knees, back and core.

Notice how the Lakers deftly mention their expectation of Bryant's complete recovery without suggesting when that moment might arrive. By not placing any time constraints on it whatsoever, the Lakers have essentially insulated themselves from any criticism that might come regarding Kobe's return.

Moreover, their spokesman makes it perfectly clear that Kobe's return will be contingent on more than just the condition of his surgically repaired Achilles tendon. The strengthening of the other components of the body after a major injury is key to any full recuperative process, but it's also the aspect that's most often overlooked by outsiders.

By pointing out the myriad obstacles at play, the Lakers are hinting that there are other factors that can and will affect Kobe's return beyond just the Achilles itself.

The implication may still be that Kobe completes his rehab at some point during the 2013-14 NBA season. The Lakers, however, can't be blamed for any misrepresentation if he doesn't, precisely because they didn't lay out any specific timetable and likely won't until Bryant's return is imminent.

Even then, the team could always choose to bring Kobe back without advanced warning, as the Minnesota Timberwolves did with Kevin Love last season.

Truth be told, the Lakers have played their cards properly to this point. At Kobe's age (35) and with the mileage on his wheels (1,239 regular-season games), there's no telling when he'll be fit to play again, let alone when (if ever) fans can reasonably expect him to look like the Mamba of old.

ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Thus, whether Kobe comes back strong and ahead of schedule, weak and behind schedule, or somewhere in between, the Lakers will have all the bases covered. If there's any pressure to be placed publicly on Bryant's return, it'll have to come from Kobe's camp.

Which, to some extent, it already has. Back in August, Bryant told reporters in China that his recuperation was going exceedingly well (via Jonathan Hartzell of NBA.com):

The surgical procedure was different […] and because of that the recovery has been different. The normal timetable for recovery from an Achilles, we’ve shattered that. Three-and-a-half months I can already walk just fine, I’m lifting weights with the Achilles just fine and that’s different. So we don’t know what that timetable is going to be. It’s kind of new territory for us all.

Bryant, though, stopped short of suggesting when he might be back, or even if he'd actually return sooner than anyone originally anticipated. Compare that to how the Bulls handled Derrick Rose's rehab from a torn ACL during the 2012-13 campaign.

To be fair, it wasn't someone from Chicago's camp who first proclaimed that Rose wouldn't miss the entire season. Rather, it was Reggie Rose, Derrick's older brother, who put the Bulls behind the proverbial eight ball (via KC Johnson of the Chicago Tribune):

He's not sitting out the entire (2012-2013) year. We're just going to bring him back slowly. The biggest thing to do is not put a time limit on it, just when he feels comfortable. When he comes back, he has to learn how to trust his body. I tore my ACL in college. It's him learning how to trust his body.

One moment, Reggie says his brother won't be out the whole year. The next, he emphasizes the importance of avoiding timetables. 

In the moment, the comments were innocuous enough; it seemed safe to think that Derrick would be back in time to play at some point in 2012-13. That expectation only seemed more reasonable once Ricky Rubio and Iman Shumpert returned from their respective ACL tears.

But by allowing Reggie Rose, an unofficial spokesman without any direct ties to the organization, to have the first word, the Bulls forced themselves to play catch-up, rather than getting out in front of the story and setting the bar themselves.

This might not have been such a big deal later on if Derrick had been the first to comment, as Kobe was with his injury. The younger Rose didn't chime in with any word whatsoever until July 20, 2012, after his brother and several other Bulls officials, including GM Gar Forman and owner Jerry Reinsdorf, had already joined the conversation.

Of course, Rose would appear to be more of a recluse than Kobe ever was. He's never been one to pursue the spotlight or elevate his voice in public, for better or worse, even when dealing with personal public relations matters.

For Rose, his return (or lack thereof) didn't morph into the monstrous distraction that it eventually became until this past February, well after his previously "projected" return date (i.e. right around the All-Star break) came and went.

It was then that Reggie spouted off again, this time criticizing the Bulls for not reshuffling the roster at the trade deadline and, in turn, implying that Derrick might've been back sooner had Chicago made some major moves (via Scott Powers of ESPN Chicago):

What have you pieced together? Have you made any moves? Have you made any trades to get better? You know all roads to the championship lead through Miami. What pieces have you put together for the physical playoffs?

Joakim Noah is a great player. Luol Deng is a great player. But you need more than that. You have to put together pieces to your main piece. The players can only do so much. It's up to the organization to make them better.

It's frustrating to see my brother play his heart and soul out for the team and them not put anything around him.

Reports from different doctors involved in Rose's recovery didn't help matters any. Neither did Waka Flocka Flame's proclamation that Rose would be ready to help Chicago cut the cord on the Miami Heat's 27-game winning streak.

Lennart Preiss/Getty Images

The Bulls didn't do themselves any favors by leaving the door open for Rose's return toward the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. Head coach Tom Thibodeau continued to insist that Rose might be ready to play before Chicago's season came to a close, even as the Bulls faced imminent elimination against the Heat in mid-May (via Aggrey Sam of CSN Chicago):

That’s the way we approached it from the beginning of the year. I think from the outside, we knew it would be a big story. But from the inside, the way we view it is, we knew from the beginning of the season that there was a good chance that he would miss a big chunk of the season and the possibility of him missing the entire season. He knew that from the beginning and the way we approached it — and it hasn’t changed one bit from the beginning — is the players that are available, concentrate on your daily improvement and the next improvement that we’re playing, get ready for the game. Let Derrick handle his rehab and then, hopefully at some point — whether it’s next week, next year — he’ll rejoin us. But for the guys who are here, we’ve got to get it done with what we have, and we have more than enough to win.

Just a few days prior, Derrick had seemingly begun to buy into the idea that a return from a significant setback in the midst of a heated postseason series wasn't beyond the realm of possibility (via Yahoo! News). "Still in the air," he said. "I might have a chance."

Throwing Rose back into the most intense of fires—a playoff battle against an archrival—would've likely done more harm than good to him, physically and mentally. The last thing any team should want a player of Rose's caliber to do is try to get his legs back in the midst of the most meaningful games, rather than allowing him to work his way into proper playing shape in a low-pressure environment.

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It certainly didn't help matters that seemingly every one of Rose's teammates had to battle through an injury or an illness of some sort as the playoffs progressed, while the 2011 league MVP kept his physically sound knee on the sideline. The sight of a healthy Rose wavering as his teammates dropped like flies only intensified the fiasco.

Had the Bulls adjusted their messaging at some point, had they come out earlier and said that Rose probably wouldn't be back and allowed him to dictate whether or not he'd spring a late-season surprise, perhaps the situation wouldn't have devolved into the debacle that it became.

The point is, the Bulls and Rose's camp weren't on the same page at every step. Moreover, the leaks that sprung (particularly those from Reggie Rose) proved all too injurious to the cause of sticking to safe talking points.

Thus far, the Lakers have had few such concerns in dealing with Kobe.

They've done well to manage expectations by insisting that Bryant will return when he's darn well ready, whenever that may be. On the other end, Kobe, while plenty visible, hasn't been shooting off his mouth at every turn or allowed anyone else to do so for him.

To be sure, the details between the two situations differ in important ways. For one, Kobe's torn Achilles is an injury that typically incurs a six- to nine-month recovery timetable. A torn ACL like Rose's usually requires nine to 12 months.

Not to mention that, generally speaking, athletes who suffer through torn ACLs don't typically perform like their former selves until about 18 months post-injury. For Rose, his return on opening night will come almost 18 months to the day after his knee gave way in Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers.

In Kobe's case, even the most dire estimate would have him back on the court in January or February.

But the Lakers aren't playing that guessing game and wouldn't seem to be keen to do so anytime soon. They'll let the chips fall where they may, in part because, realistically, nobody's expecting them to so much as sniff the Larry O'Brien Trophy next spring, with or without Kobe in their corner.

That wasn't quite the case for Chicago last season. The Bulls weren't considered championship material without Rose, but the fact that they were able to rack up big wins against Miami, the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers led some to wonder whether the Bulls, with their tenacious defense and unmatched work ethic, might've entered that all-important conversation with Derrick Rose in the mix.

Nevermind that, on the flip side, the Bulls were bounced by the likes of the then-New Orleans Hornets, Milwaukee Bucks, Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings during the regular season. Indeed, Chicago's messages were mixed in too many ways last season, both on and off the court.

Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

For the Lakers to avoid falling into a similar trap with Bryant, they'll have to remain united and on point around the media until the Mamba's actually ready to play.

Which is to say, the sooner Kobe comes back, the better off everyone will be.

 

Wanna chat about Kobe's recovery? Hit me up on Twitter!

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