Kobe Bryant knows a thing or two about handling obstacles, about overcoming odds and proving doubters wrong. He turned pro at the age of 17, led the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight titles in the early 2000s and stuck around long enough to win two more without Shaquille O'Neal by his side.
Along the way, Bryant's body has taken quite the beating—between injuries to his knees, his ankles, his face and his fingers (among other parts)—while his game has grown and evolved, like a fine wine aging over time.
Rather than a piece of fruit decaying on the vine.
The Black Mamba's latest challenge, though, may be his greatest yet. Getting back on the court after rupturing his left Achilles tendon is one thing. Competing and producing at the level he was prior to the injury is another entirely.
At 35 and coming off the most serious setback of his 17-year NBA career, Kobe may never dominate a game physically like he once did. But make no mistake: he'll still be able to affect the outcome of any contest as much as he ever has.
That is, if he does two things, one tougher than the other.
The first is a matter of corporeal preparation. As Ken Berger of CBSSports.com recently noted, there's more to Bryant's impending return than just the recovery of his Achilles tendon. A summer spent rehabbing a specific part of his body is one not used by Kobe to push himself through his usual slate of harrowing strength and conditioning workouts.
Chances are, the rest of Bryant's body has fallen out of whack to some extent since he came up limping against the Golden State Warriors in mid-April. Kobe would likely need significantly more time exercising away from the court once his foot is fully healed to get himself back into proper playing shape.
And that's before factoring in Bryant's lack of basketball fitness, which, in truth, can only be corrected by playing the game.
There's no question that Kobe would put in the requisite time, effort and energy to make sure he's as close to 100 percent of his old self as he can be. So much of Bryant's brilliant, Hall of Fame career has been the result of his sheer will to outwork everyone, to be a gym-rattiest of gym rats.
What's less clear is whether or not the Black Mamba is patient enough to allow his heel to heal and get everything else up to snuff before throwing himself back into the fire of live NBA action. Bryant isn't one to sit "idly" by and watch the rest of his team take the floor if he feels he can contribute in some way.
Especially if said team is fighting for its postseason life. This past March, Bryant limped into the starting lineup on the road against the Indiana Pacers, just two nights after suffering a severe ankle sprain at the end of a loss to the Atlanta Hawks. The results (for Bryant) were less than promising:
The Lakers went on to win in Indy, though it was immediately evident that Kobe shouldn't have played at all. Bryant can't afford to rush back from his current predicament, lest he jeopardize whatever's left of his career.
And when he does return, there's no telling how close to his old self he can or will ever be. Father Time isn't typically kind to ballers of Kobe's age and mileage. It may be too much even now to ask the sphere of sports science for more miracles.
Which brings us to the other thing that Kobe can do, but may well have difficulty doing, to ensure that he stays not only relevant, but elite among his NBA peers.
That is, adjusting his game, perhaps even in a dramatic way. Fellow Lakers legend James Worthy offered these words of wisdom to Kobe during a recent interview with Mark G. Medina of The Los Angeles Daily News:
One of the biggest challenges for Kobe this year is can he step back. He’s been in the league for 17 years, has a lot of miles on the bodies [sic] and has had a lot of injuries. Can he find a game that will allow other guys to flourish? Then, when you need him, like a Larry Bird or Magic Johnson down the stretch, when you need him, he’ll be more effective. I think that’s the game I foresee for him. I don’t see him dominating and getting 30 points five games a year. I just don’t. It’s going to be tough for Kobe. He only knows one way to play. That’s to dominate [the ball].
Indeed, Kobe would do well to heed Big Game James' advice. Worthy went on to recall when he was sent to the bench toward the end of his career and how difficult it can be for player and coach to agree on such a move.
Granted, Bryant's not about to be LA's sixth man, nor would Mike D'Antoni ever ask him to be. The Lakers need Kobe to be effective enough to merit a spot in the starting lineup, and then some.
For Bryant, the key rests with his ability to take a bit of a backseat when he returns, to relinquish control of the ball to his teammates. The Lakers didn't go out of their way to convince the Phoenix Suns to send Steve Nash their way in July of 2012 just so he could shoot threes all day; they brought him in to handle the ball, to run the offense, to make plays and to relieve Kobe of the pressure to do so all the time.
That didn't quite work out as planned last season. Nash succumbed to a leg injury during the second game and went on to miss a total of 32 outings—the most of his career.
Had poor health and a major coaching shakeup not intervened, perhaps Bryant and Nash would've developed a more equitable chemistry in LA's backcourt. Instead, the Lakers wound up with Kobe playing the point for long stretches, thereby leaving Steve underutilized.
Injuries remain of grave concern for both players, though the fact that Kobe is now the one coming back from the worse situation between the two could bring with it a silver lining of sorts. Nash should have ample time to re-acclimate himself to D'Antoni's offense while Bryant's away and to establish command enough that he needn't relinquish it entirely once Kobe comes back.
That could be exactly what the Mamba needs to succeed now and to make the most of whatever life is left in his worn-down legs. By ceding control of the rock to another guard (i.e., Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar), Bryant could spend the majority of his time working off the ball and focusing more intently on what he does best: scoring.
Whether coming off screens, cutting to the basket, sitting in the post or hanging out on the perimeter, Kobe could find myriad means of putting the ball through the hoop without exerting himself to the extent he otherwise would.
Why have Bryant waste his energy creating shots for himself and for his teammates when there are others in Purple and Gold who are just as capable of doing it? Why not leave the dirty work to everyone else and let Kobe serve as a scoring specialist of sorts?
Because, as James Worthy mentioned, Bryant is accustomed to dominating the ball. That's what he's done for nearly his entire basketball life. Never has Kobe been forced to be anything other than the lead.
At least, not successfully or without destructive conflict (right, Shaq?).
This isn't to say that Bryant should or must resign himself to spending his twilight years as a decoy and/or merely a finisher. If fitness permits, he'd be afforded plenty of time to work as a facilitator and "Hero Baller," if you will. And when the shot clock is winding down, Kobe would still be the go-to guy to jack up the impossible shots that nobody else wants to take.
But the task of convincing Kobe—on a deeper, more instinctive level, and not just on the surface—to settle into a slightly more secondary role might be too much to ask of even Hercules. It'll be up to D'Antoni, Nash and all the other key contributors in Lakerland to make a case for concession to the Mamba.
More importantly, the onus will be on Kobe to come to terms with a more targeted role if he wants to extend his career and remain effective in doing so. It'll be incumbent upon him to fight off his old habits, to go against his own grain and not only accept a new role on his team, but also to excel in that role, to execute it to the fullest.
In that respect, Kobe can look at this situation as yet another opportunity to prove his doubters wrong. Those who question Bryant's ability to step back and let others lead from time to time would grant him the fuel needed to keep the fire in his belly burning as bright and as hot as ever.
Overcoming his own physical limitations will still be a significant challenge for Bryant, though even that can (hypothetically speaking) be achieved through the same hard work and dedication that he's always put into his game. As it happens, the bigger challenge for Kobe may well be battling his ego and letting the game come to him.
But if Kobe conquers these obstacles like he has so many before, he should find himself and the Lakers that much better off, now and in the long run.
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