Kobe Bryant’s most recent injury leaves the basketball world to ponder what kind of star he will look like once he returns.
The future Hall of Fame 2-guard ruptured his Achilles late in the 2012-13 season and missed the playoffs. He was sidelined during the early portion of this 2013-14 campaign and eventually made his return to the lineup just about a month into the season.
Six games into his return, Bryant fractured the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee. The Lakers’ all-time leading scorer will be shelved for four to six weeks. This latest setback might simply be a freak injury or perhaps a sign of things to come.
That leaves us with a few possibilities to consider when projecting the remainder of Bryant’s career.
He’s still Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant has dealt with an assortment of injuries throughout his career, and yet the former league MVP has consistently rushed back to the lineup and adjusted his game accordingly.
For instance, during the 2003-04 campaign, ESPN.com’s Marc Stein offered this observation of Bryant:
Kobe, remember, shouldn't even be playing, at least not if I had a vote. As good as he's getting with that left hand, and even though his banged-up shoulder is expertly wrapped up every night by the veteran touch of uber-trainer Gary Vitti, it's still my feeling that Kobe is back in the lineup way too soon and increasing the risk of another setback ... although I can't deny it was impressive to see video of No. 8 swishing a couple half-court shots with his left hand to make an Israeli reporter friend of mine crank out 400 push-ups for betting against him.
This has practically become the norm with Bryant. He has become an urban legend of sorts, a creature with mythical healing powers. The four-time All-Star Game MVP has created a standard that few will ever match given his dedication to his craft.
Mike D’Antoni said it best last season to Mark Medina of Inside SoCal: “If he’s broken in two places, he’ll play,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’ll play well.”
This is what we have come to expect from the five-time champion after years of watching him play through pain and discomfort. Thus, if there were ever a player that could recover from two such gruesome injuries in the late stages of a career, it most certainly would have to be Bryant.
He will allow his body to heal and then follow a strict training regimen to get himself back into playing shape. From there, Bryant will rejoin the Los Angeles Lakers and look like the superstar many have become accustomed to.
Granted, the two-time Finals MVP is at an age where a decline is inevitable. His age, coupled with the minutes accumulated during his illustrious tenure, is going to catch up with him. Heck, one could argue the process has already begun.
Take Ray Allen for instance. He has been in the league just as long as Bryant and is three years older. He has adjusted to the wear and tear by accepting a reduced role with the Miami Heat.
Although the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer has yet to take a backseat on his team, his responsibilities will gradually decrease as he approaches the end of his career. Still, Bryant could remain an alpha male that plays at a high level.
The Derrick Rose model
Kobe Bryant’s left-knee injury is not career ending. In fact, the Los Angeles Lakers 2-guard is expected to miss at most six weeks. Still, one cannot help but wonder if his body is in the process of completely betraying him much like Derrick Rose.
If such is the case, perhaps Bryant should consider sitting out the rest of the season. Charles Barkley, the TNT commentator and Hall of Fame player, opined on Inside the NBA that the Lakers should shut down their superstar for the rest of the year (transcript by the Point Forward):
“Kobe Bryant shouldn’t play any more this year,” Barkley said. “They should shut him down. … With or without him, the Lakers suck either way. It’s not like they’re world-beaters. When he comes back in six weeks, they’ll be even more out of it. If they’re smart [they should shut him down]. They’re giving the guy $50 million for the next couple of years. Best-case scenario, they’re an eighth seed.”
Barkley’s opinion is perhaps more poignant than what most former athletes could potentially offer. Indeed, the former Philadelphia 76er saw his career come to a close when he ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his left knee.
Thus, the outspoken Barkley might be on to something. He is suggesting that Bryant sits out the remainder of the season to ensure he does not end up overcompensating other bodily parts and precipitating the end of his playing days.
Given that Rose is a decade younger than Bryant, it sounds counterintuitive for the Lakers star to follow the lead of someone that has youth on their side. Still, Rose’s cautious approach probably guarantees he will play multiple seasons in the league.
Bryant’s age coupled with his Achilles tear and knee fracture probably warrant a prudent approach going forward.
This could potentially mean that Bryant misses big chunks of this season and the following ones to come. However, the Black Mamba will at least still be able to bank on his smarts and occasionally look just as spectacular as he did prior the Achilles tear.
Bryant was seemingly headed that way before his knee gave. On the other hand, the 2-guard might opt to aggressively return from his setback and…
Play until the wheels fall off
Kobe Bryant is arguably the most defiant superstar in the sport. At various points in his career, he appeared boxed in, and yet he continuously challenged the status quo and rose to the top.
The five-time champion won titles with Shaquille O’Neal and also without. Many expected he would fail in both instances, but he certainly jabbed his critics into submission.
It’s a terrain he is comfortable with, and more importantly, Bryant intends on conquering it once again. Indeed, when Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports pressed the superstar on those doubting a successful return from injury, he responded: "Only an idiot would."
Mind you, for the first time in his career, the cracks in Bryant’s armor are beginning to show. In the same interview with Wojnarowski, he shared this nugget:
"Every time I had to find that drive, I would eventually find it … somewhere. But it took a toll. Every summer, I'd finally find that push that would get me there. But it was getting harder to do."
By Bryant’s standards, this is a sign of weakness. The face of the Lakers organization has always been very confident—some might even say arrogant at times. Smush Parker said as much on Hard 2 Guard Radio (transcript via Larry Brown Sports):
I had a workout with the Lakers, beat all the guards out for the starting position, earned a spot on the team. Midway through the first season, I tried to at least have a conversation with Kobe Bryant — he is my teammate, he is a co-worker of mine, I see his face every day I go in to work — and I tried to talk with him about football. He tells me I can’t talk to him. He tells me I need more accolades under my belt before I come talk to him. He was dead serious.
Thus, for Bryant to state that his rehab from an Achilles tear took a toll, it suggests that he felt less than superhuman, which is un-Kobe like. And yet, this is the same player that makes it clear he will rejoin the Lakers.
Based on his track record, we can only assume Bryant will remain defiant in the face of adversity and opponents. Still, his bravado might not be enough to save him from possible complications with his knee as Jeff Stotts from In Street Clothes noted:
Compartment syndrome and nerve entrapment can occur and arthritis is often a resulting complication. These kinds of things can be problematic for a player who has logged as many minutes as Bryant.
With the latest injury occurring on the same leg as his Achilles injury, people are bound to wonder if the two are linked. The answer is maybe. As previously mentioned tibial plateau fractures are rare and Kobe’s break could easily be seen as a freak injury. However pictures of Kobe since his return do seem to show noticeable atrophy in his left calf muscle complex. If his calf was not a full strength, it may have played a role in the fracture.
Given the personality of the superstar and the facts we have at our disposal, it would appear that Bryant will be dealing with injuries related to the Achilles rupture and knee fracture going forward.
Nonetheless, the two-time Finals MVP will continue to rush back to the perceived aid of his teammates. He will be broken down but never beaten. The same things were said about Rocky Balboa in Rocky V, and his fictional career took a huge nosedive from that point on.
Sadly, Bryant’s real-life fate might be incredibly similar. The story of the athlete struggling to reconcile what he once was with what he is. While the world has evolved and caught up, the star is fading and moving backward.
However, no one wants to challenge his throne, and as a result, he fails because of eroding skills and a body that can no longer carry him. This certainly feels like a good projection of Bryant’s final years.