Downshifting this close to the start of the regular season might seem bad, but it's not. The Lakers have more pressing concerns than trotting Bryant out for opening night.
Seeing Bryant out of action might feel like a worst-case scenario for the Lakers, but they plunged beneath that realm a while ago.
The star-studded quartet of Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard built for an NBA Finals run last season needed a last-minute sprint just to qualify for postseason play. The roster has since been gutted (goodbye Howard, Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison and Metta World Peace; hello Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Shawne Williams and Xavier Henry) and expectations have plummeted.
None of this has gotten past the former MVP shooting guard. Still working his way back from the torn Achilles that ended his 2012-13 season, Bryant has watched the talent exodus and witnessed all of the criticisms.
His blood always runs hot, but it's been searing of late. For someone who played with a chip on his shoulder even while building a massive hardware collection, the perceived absence of hope has no doubt fueled his fire:
Kobe on his ESPN #NBArank: "Twenty-five was pretty silly. It was pretty laughable. But still in all, it’s a challenge I willingly accept"— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) October 24, 2013
When the Lakers traveled to China earlier this month—roughly six months after he suffered the injury—Bryant showed off the effects of his furious rehab. He was out on the hardwood, firing up shots and running end to end during pregame warmups.
Since arriving back stateside, though, the Mamba has slowed his pace, per Mark Medina of Los Angeles Daily News:
Kobe Bryant said he has scaled back his conditioning so his Achilles can adjust properly. Admits it's been a challenge to stay patient— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) October 24, 2013
For as much as he'd like to start proving his critics wrong, he understands this is a marathon and not a sprint:
Kobe's concern on the season: "That’s really the big question mark for us. Can we stay healthy enough to make a significant run?"— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) October 24, 2013
Although the talent simply isn't in place for anything more than a brief postseason showing, Bryant has to make the most of what he has around him. The 35-year-old might play like Superman—more closely than a certain former teammate at least—but he can't outrun Father Time.
To maximize this season (and beyond), patience is key. The temptation to rush back into action will be strong, but the last thing he and the Lakers can afford is him reaggravating the injury.
Not only would it thrash any fleeting hopes of success, but it could also send Vino to the shelf permanently. The cap on his career would be screwed tight. His career would be forever relegated to YouTube and NBA TV rebroadcasts.
For Bryant, slowing down isn't the easy choice, but it's the smart one to make.
Lakers fans have plenty of reasons to panic right now, but Bryant's rehab isn't one of them.