The day after Halloween, Kobe Bryant emerged from what we can only assume is his rehabilitation "Bat Cave"—in which longtime Los Angeles Lakers trainer Gary Vitti presumably plays the role of Alfred and strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco assumes the position of Lucius Fox—to have an NBA-mandated weekly chat with the local media.
And, wouldn't you know it? Nobody knows when he'll be back to playing basketball on a regular basis, much less when he'll be ready to don the purple and gold for the first time since he tore his Achilles tendon this past April.
So, if the Black Mamba himself doesn't yet know what to expect, even though he's already begun the three weeks of conditioning that he said he'd need before he got back on the court, then, realistically, what can anyone anticipate from him in the weeks and months to come?
Kobe Takes a Leap Year
At this point, it seems highly, highly, HIGHLY (did I mention "highly"?) unlikely that Kobe will sit out the entire 2013-14 season, a la Derrick Rose in 2012-13.
Time's a-wastin', and nobody's more aware of that than Bryant. At his age (35) and with the mileage on his body, Bryant understands that he only has so many years of good basketball left in him and, in turn, that it's imperative to make the most of those he has left.
That's why he's been rehabbing like a maniac since spring. He's fighting against the prevailing forces of Father Time and Mother Nature, with the express intent of shedding his street clothes to reveal game-day garb.
Still, there's no telling if/when Bryant's body might suffer another setback while he's pushing for an early return. He's already had to pump the brakes once on his recovery, albeit not entirely out of precaution.
Kobe knows that it's not just about the Achilles. It hasn't been long since Bryant last ventured to Germany to have his knees miraculously healed once again. And, as he noted during his most recent media huddle, via the L.A. Daily News:
We got through the hard part in terms of preserving the tightness. Now you have to make sure you're not putting yourself in jeopardy with other parts of the body. being 35, you really have to pay attention to that. You don't want to create a string of injuries that then it’s one after the other. You want to take care of it, handle it and come back at full strength.
The real danger to Bryant, it seems, lies in the viability of the rest of his body. If he can keep the pedal to the metal without jeopardizing any of his other body parts, then his return this season is all but guaranteed.
But if another cog in his corporeal machine comes undone, it might behoove Bryant to ease up and consider postponing his comeback until 2014-15, when the Lakers could have a more championship-ready roster around him.
As Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles recently noted, Bryant sees every year absent a title as "a wasted year of my life." In that case, why would he (or should he) put himself through the ringer to return to a team that, if everything breaks right, might win 45 games before suffering yet another first-round playoff ouster?
Especially when the Lakers could have the pieces to contend for a title next fall, assuming Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak and the rest of the Lakers' brain trust are able to lure another star or two to L.A. to soak up what could be a flood of cap space at the team's disposal.
To be sure, that sort of thinking probably won't figure into Bryant's outlook, nor will he allow it to seep in. All I'm saying is, if Kobe hits a bump in the road during his rehab, he could do worse than take the rest of the season to get himself as close to 100 percent as possible...
Bryant Calls It Quits
...Worse, as in, retire, be it before he takes the court again or shortly after he comes back.
Kobe's spoken in the past about how he doesn't want to simply hang around and earn a nice paycheck for doing so. He's not interested in merely existing as an NBA player when, for most of his 17 years as a pro, he's been among the league's elite.
In that case, it's not all that far-fetched to imagine Bryant "hangin' 'em up" by the time the Lakers' campaign has drawn to a close.
Suppose Kobe is back in action sometime between, say, late December and mid-January. He finds himself somewhat limited physically after months of diligent work in the gym, in the pool, in the training room, etc.
But, rather than quit—because, clearly, Kobe's not going to just give up—he remains patient. He tells himself to keep doing what he's doing, recalibrating his skills to better fit his new mortality while also putting in the sweat equity to get his body up to speed.
Time goes by, Kobe continues to struggle and his body clearly isn't what it once was. Much of Bryant's off-the-court work, while well-intentioned, only hastens his physical decline at the age of 35.
By season's end, it's clear that Steve Nash isn't the only elder statesman in the locker room who can't completely overcome the lingering effects of a recent and debilitating injury. Crafty as he may be, Kobe's still too limited in his movements to be able to create shots for himself or for others. In essence, he becomes a glorified, highly-paid decoy, a stand-still shooter on the perimeter who occasionally ventures inward.
Think Bryant would be satisfied with that result? Think he'd be willing to play on like that, assuming he's leveled with himself?
Probably not. He might see the expiring of his contract and the crumbling of the Lakers roster as an opportunity (albeit not the perfect one) to bow out before he becomes the next Brett Favre.
Just another guy who lingered for too long, to the point where he'd become the butt of every sports fan's favorite joke.
At least that'd be a better outcome (and more likely) outcome than Kobe not coming back at all. He wants another championship. He wants to best Michael Jordan's career scoring mark, with an eye toward Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time record. He surely wants to silence his critics and doubters, real and imagined.
But if health becomes a more grave concern before Kobe can so much as set foot on the court, perhaps he'd entertain the notion of leaving that April 12 game against the Golden State Warriors—and those free throws he knocked down after his Achilles snapped—as his last.
Not likely, though.
The Black Mamba Returns...Defanged
Chances are, Kobe will play plenty this season once he feels he's healthy enough to do so. Whether that turns out to be a good thing for the Lakers is another story.
The assumption seems to be that Bryant will still be a 20-plus-point-per-game scorer when he returns, that he'll be a beast in the post and a sniper from the perimeter.
But as brilliant as he was even last season, Bryant showed some serious signs of slippage prior to his injury. His three-point shooting cratered after a hot start, and he provided about as much defensive resistance as would a wisp of wind.
A surgically repaired Achilles isn't going to make Kobe any more mobile or explosive as a stopper. Nor will the time off and the cause for it bolster his ability to drive through traffic and attack the rim off the bounce.
And if Kobe can't slash or defend competently, how helpful can he really be to Mike D'Antoni's Lakers as a player? Is he going to stretch opposing defenses with corner threes? How long will it take for other teams to realize that he poses only a minimal threat when left wide open?
Would D'Antoni feel obligated to start Kobe night after night, leaving younger, healthier options (i.e. Xavier Henry) to toil on the bench? Will there be pressure to sacrifice immediate on-court success for the sake of locker-room politics?
Maybe Bryant is shuffled in and out of the lineup due to recurring injuries. That was the case last season with Chauncey Billups, who figured into just 22 regular-season games for the Los Angeles Clippers after battling back from an Achilles tear of his own.
Mr. Big Shot returned as a slightly above-average three-point shooter who wasn't particularly useful as a ball-handler or rebounder anymore. He also proved to be a defensive sieve; the Clips surrendered 107.5 points per 100 possessions he played—a mark that would've ranked as the fourth worst in the league over the course of the 2012-13 season, per NBA.com.
Billups has since returned to the Detroit Pistons to serve as a stopgap option in the backcourt and veteran mentor for Brandon Jennings. Billups may not care for the reduced role, but as someone whose career has been that of a premier role player, if you will, he's probably used to stepping back.
More so than is Kobe, anyway. So much of Bryant's greatness over the years has stemmed from his supreme self-confidence. What outsiders see as textbook ball-hoggery might be nothing more than Bryant believing wholeheartedly that the shots he takes, however terrible they may seem (or actually be), are the best options available to his team, the ones most likely to contribute to a winning cause.
Will Kobe willingly curb his enthusiasm for ridiculous shots once he returns? If he's not his old self, will he take a hint and serve more as a facilitator, shooter and mentor, like Billups has in L.A. and Detroit?
Or will he continue his relentless pursuit of scoring milestones, emboldened by the abject championship prospects for the Lakers this season?
You don't need the most vivid imagination to picture such a situation, wherein Kobe demands his usual shots and minutes, all the while dragging the Lakers down with him.
Retirement under these circumstances would hardly be a viable option in Bryant's mind, though. If he's healthy enough to play, he may well think that climbing all the way back, as far as effectiveness is concerned, is merely a matter of time and effort.
Of which he'd have plenty if/when the Lakers extend him, home-team discount or no.
Kobe Goes Dominique 2.0
The best-case scenario would see Bryant reclaim the lion's share of his former ability, not unlike another Achilles victim who had a cup of coffee with the Clippers.
I'm referring, of course, to Dominique Wilkins. The Human Highlight Reel suffered an injury similar to Kobe's in January 1992 but managed to bounce back in a big way. Wilkins averaged 29.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists while shooting 46.8 percent from the field (38 percent from three) in 1992-93—his first season following the rupture.
Wilkins turned 33 that season. Age-wise, that didn't leave him far off from where Kobe is now, though Bryant, admittedly, has racked up many more minutes to this point in his career (well over 50,000 between the regular season and the playoffs) than 'Nique had in 1992 (right around 30,000).
How do you think Kobe's comeback will go?
But Wilkins had been far more reliant on his own athleticism as a means of productivity in the years immediately preceding his devastating setback than Bryant had been. Kobe could still get up from time to time, but last season saw him spend even more time showing off his tricks of the trade.
If there's any aging wing in the game today whose game is tailor-made for just such a transition, it's Bryant. Between his flawless footwork, his feathery shooting touch and otherworldly on-court intelligence, Kobe should find ways to put the ball through the hoop, irrespective of whatever physical limitations he might face.
And there may not be many of those, either. If there's anything we've learned about Kobe over the years, it's that he recovers faster and more completely from injuries than do most mere mortals, and that he's willing to pursue whatever medical means he can, experimental or otherwise, to hasten and improve upon the healing process.
Timing might not allow Bryant to realistically participate in the All-Star Game, just as Wilkins did to cap his comeback from a torn Achilles. Then again, Kobe's global popularity and devoted fanbase figure to bombard the ballot box with the votes he'd need to fend off James Harden at the starting shooting guard spot out West.
That aside, 30 points per game is a bit much to ask of any player in this day and age of stout team defense and more egalitarian play on the offensive end, even more so given D'Antoni's desire for ball and player movement.
But if Bryant can average even, say, 20 points—which would be his worst mark since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season—he'd be a boon to the Lakers' pursuit of their ninth straight playoff spot and setting themselves up for what so many Angelenos hope will be a bright, superstar-studded future.
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