As if the Los Angeles Lakers needed any more bad news to start the 2013-14 NBA season—between Steve Nash's slow recovery, Shawne Williams' spot as the starting power forward and a brutal early schedule—now comes word that Kobe Bryant has stepped back from full weight-bearing training to run instead on an altered-gravity treadmill.
Don't call it a setback, though. The Lakers certainly won't. According to team spokesman John Black, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles, the decision to shift Bryant's rehab was his own, not that of the Lakers' training staff.
In truth, it doesn't really matter what the official term is for Kobe's latest status. The fact is, he still has a long way to go before he's ready to return from the torn Achilles that ended his 2012-13 season. There's no telling when Bryant will be back in action.
And that's fine.
It's all well and good that Kobe, the competitive maniac that he is, wants to do everything he can to cut down his recovery time and start playing basketball again. But there's no point in anyone rushing Bryant back or for Kobe to do so himself.
Prepping for a Playoff Push
Make no mistake: This year's Lakers aren't contending for the 2014 title.
Even Mike D'Antoni, LA's much-maligned head coach, has acknowledged that there are reasons to believe this season could be a struggle for the purple and gold, via McMenamin again: "I can understand why ESPN, I think they picked us 12th and I understand that. If my producer told me, 'OK, make them 12th,' I could put out a case there why they're 12th."
D'Antoni, though, was quick to note that hopes for playoff basketball in Lakerland aren't exactly baseless, either:
But if my producer says, 'Make them a playoff team,' here you go: Kobe gets well, Steve Nash has a very good year, Pau Gasol is one of the best centers in the league, they put it together, a couple of the young guys reach the potential that they haven't yet, and that's what we have to do.
Maybe I have about six scenarios and four of them have to work out. You know, Xavier Henry has to have a really, really good year -- up to now he has bounced around a little bit -- so just so many things like that that we're working on, and if that happens, then yeah, we'll make the playoffs.
That being said, it's tough to project the Lakers finishing any higher than, say, seventh or eighth in the Western Conference. The top six spots out West figure to be occupied by (in no particular order) the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and the rival Los Angeles Clippers.
Best-case scenario: The Lakers find themselves in a season-long battle for one of the last two slots with the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans.
Not exactly the situation that the Lakers would want Kobe killing himself to come back to.
It'd be one thing for Bryant to cut corners in his recovery if the stakes were higher, if the Lakers were in the thick of a championship chase.
But that won't likely be the case—not with Nash's fitness in doubt, not with a roster replete with misfits and castoffs, and certainly not with a defense that figures to be among the NBA's most porous without Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace to cover their teammates' mistakes. If the Lakers are going to make the playoffs at all, they'll need Kobe at his best, however long it takes for him to reach that point.
Even more so if D'Antoni decides to ride Bryant as hard as some of his recent comments on The Herd with Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio suggest he will (via McMenamin):
Kobe is a unique individual and he is very headstrong. And one of the reasons why he's been the best in the game, and will be and is, is that he is that way.
You are definitely not handling him, you are trying to work with him. And he has certain ideas and you take that away from him and then he becomes a little bit more normal. And he is anything but normal. So it's a challenge at the same time.
It's probably like riding Secretariat. I mean, you get up there, there's a lot of times all you are doing is riding. He's carrying you. And Kobe's carrying us a lot. Obviously you would like certain things to soften up, but you can't take away his spirit.
You read that right: D'Antoni, a coach known for running his players into the ground, is already comparing his best player to one of the most successful thoroughbreds in the history of horse racing. That can't be good, especially when you consider that D'Antoni allowed Kobe to average 45.7 minutes a night during the seven games leading up to the fateful rupturing of his Achilles this past April.
If Bryant's going to survive whatever workload D'Antoni has in store for him, he'll need to be as close to completely healthy as possible.
Take (Tank) Your Time
Letting Kobe ease his way back into proper playing shape could also be good for LA over the long haul, albeit in a more immediately painful way for Lakers fans.
Suppose the Lakers stink it up from the get-go—which is a distinct possibility. They'll play 26 of their first 45 games on the road. That first half also includes 21 games against playoff teams from last season and another 11 against squads with legitimate hopes of starting new postseason streaks.
That slate could yield plenty of ugly results for LA.
The downturn, though, could come much sooner than that; by the end of the opening week of the season, the Lakers will have faced the Clippers, Warriors, Spurs and Hawks.
Which is to say, they'll have a pretty clear idea of what they have on hand sans Kobe, for better or worse.
An early nosedive could give the front office cause enough to at least consider a strategy akin to "tanking." If the Lakers are already bound for the draft lottery, why not see what they can get in return for Nash or any of the team's many expiring contracts, including the one that belongs to Pau Gasol?
That way, the Lakers would be able to get something of long-term value in return for their current assets while improving their odds of landing a plum pick in what's expected to be a loaded 2014 draft.
To be sure, any plan involving "tanking" would be a risky one for the Lakers. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding noted, the current depth of terrible teams hoping for a shot at landing Andrew Wiggins and company might keep LA from snagging a blue-chip prospect. Moreover, any perceived attempt to lose now could turn off the superstar free agents that the Lakers will presumably pursue next summer.
But if the Lakers are going to be bad, if it's clear that they're not going to be in the playoff hunt once Kobe comes back, then why not surreptitiously pursue losing now as a means of improving the team's prospects later? Why not encourage Kobe to make sure that his comeback, at the age of 35, doesn't result in the sort of depressing output that marked Chauncey Billups' return from a similar injury last season?
However the Lakers fare without Bryant, there's little good that can come from him trying to hurry back. They're not going to compete for championships or attract marquee free agents unless Kobe can perform at a level near that which he enjoyed prior to his career-altering injury.
At the moment, there's no telling whether he'll be able to do that—now, later or at any point before his inevitable retirement. He's never had to cope with an injury quite this devastating.
Patience, then, makes the most sense for the Lakers. If they're good enough to qualify for the playoffs, they'll benefit tremendously from having a healthy and motivated Kobe back in the fold in time for the stretch run of the season. And if they're not, Bryant's time away should help to "accelerate" LA through a moment of mediocrity and onto a prosperous, post-Kobe future.
For now, let's leave Kobe be on the Alter-G.
Track Kobe's progress with me on Twitter!