But now that Bryant is sidelined once again, this time with a knee injury, you have to wonder about the viability of the set plans for the Lakers moving forward.
While Bryant's injury doesn't preclude him from future health and success, it isn't a great sign for someone that has as much mileage as he does. After all, time will eventually win this battle, and it's reasonable to assume that Bryant will be a fraction of himself once he fully returns.
There's no doubt that the Los Angeles front office was fully prepared for something like this to happen. Bryant's actual injury (fracture of the lateral tibial plateau) was a rare one, but the occurrence of a leg injury following an achilles tear is decidedly not.
KOBE. Even BEFORE his Achilles Tendon affected his L Knee It has been his Arthritis behind his Right Kneecap that has Stressed his Left Knee— Dr. Robert Klapper (@DrRobertKlapper) December 22, 2013
This is a setback to be sure, but the short-term effects of Bryant's injury pale in comparison to the long-term impact it could have on the future in Los Angeles.
Maybe the biggest impact of Bryant's return and subsequent injury was that it robbed free agents for this offseason of their naivety. If Bryant had taken the year off, one could more readily accept that he could return at full strength.
Instead, free agents have a small sampling of Bryant looking slow and ineffective—and now with a new injury to toss on the heap of concerns.
Attracting a marquee free agent isn't all about Bryant, of course, but more than ever players have become concerned with who they're teaming up with. It's hard to say that Bryant has raised his stock, and you worry that another failed return could make it plummet. Los Angeles will have plenty of appeal on its own, but a superstar chasing a title has more reason to look elsewhere than ever before.
With that in mind, perhaps Bryant's injury has made going a different route slightly more appealing.
Instead of chasing a star free agent, perhaps trusting Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak to use that money to build a more balanced roster would make sense.
Kupchak has already found some diamonds in the rough this season with guys like Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry, and that was done without the finances to play around with. As we saw with Dwight Howard, Mike D'Antoni's system is conducive to a very defined type of player, so the absence of another star isn't a death knell.
Upgrading the talent at multiple positions could be more of a "fail-safe" option for Los Angeles, even if it may not be as appealing as going for broke on the next franchise centerpiece.
Sell Off Current Assets
A lot of noise was made about the Lakers being better without Kobe Bryant, which seemed to take advantage of a very small sample size where Bryant clearly wasn't at his best. There shouldn't be any delusions of grandeur for this season in Los Angeles, as the Western Conference is just too deep and too tough to crack.
Bryant's injury was unfortunate, but Kupchak might be able to make lemonade here. The thought of trading an incredibly productive player like Jordan Hill for a draft pick or a cheap rookie-scale player was tough to entertain with Bryant nearing his comeback, but now some of the burden of having to compete this year should be removed.
While it's doubtful the Lakers can salvage much value for spare parts like Chris Kaman or Nick Young, those type of deals can and should be explored now. It's never fun to set your coach up to fail or show your star player that you're waving the white flag, but giving Bryant more incentive (or an excuse) to rest up and take his time recovering might not be the worst thing.
Trading Pau Gasol would be the big move to explore, even if he's going to be really difficult to move from a logistics standpoint. Bryant's massive extension, while fair in many ways, has still painted the Lakers into a corner of not being able to take on future salary if maintaining cap room is the primary objective. That's tough to accomplish when you consider Gasol is making $19.2 million this season.
Recognize the Window
Five weeks is just a small chunk of time compared to two seasons. This injury may alter perceptions, but it does create certain opportunities to trade and get a few more lottery balls. Any panic deal that sacrifices a future asset to better stay afloat would be even more foolish than it was before Bryant went down again.
It's important to remember that this is, for all intents and purposes, a lost season in Los Angeles. Even if the Lakers did sneak into the playoffs somehow, this isn't a title-contending team.
Bryant's injury doesn't necessarily have to change anything, but it could very well reinforce the need to stay in the two-year window and do nothing to jeopardize flexibility during that time. Bryant will need help, and it's becoming clearer that building a team that can remain successful and sustainable without his services would be wise.
If nothing else, Bryant's injury has grounded all the affected parties in reality. Maybe that's not the worst thing.