Kobe Bryant is human after all. We think.
His latest setback, a fracture on December 17 of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee while playing against the Memphis Grizzlies, has called into question the Mamba's capacity to remain a high-powered superstar in the NBA after 18 long, hard, grueling years with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Bryant is out for six weeks as he recovers from this latest injury. Coming just six games into his return after an eight-month rehab of his torn Achilles, the fractured knee on the same right leg would seem to indicate a correlation between the two.
And a very human condition otherwise known as aging.
Fans and adversaries alike are rooting for Bryant to come back healthy and give us more of what we've come to expect for almost two decades. While filled with too many turnovers, Bryant's six games provided a glimmer of hope, as he scored 20-plus points in three contests and dished out 13 assists in 23 minutes in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In retrospect, Bryant's play after such a long layoff was remarkable even for him.
On the night he injured the knee, Bryant was on the floor for 33 minutes, scoring 21 points on 9-of-18 shooting to go along with five rebounds, four assists, one block and one steal. He continued to play even after the injury. The MRI later revealed a break in the bone, prompting Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni to just shake his head and lament over the loss of Kobe yet again.
Via Eric Pincus of the L.A. Times: "You hate it for Kobe, he's worked so hard getting back. He was coming on. His shot percentage kept getting better and his turnovers kept getting less."
While no surgery was required, the treatment for such an injury is rest. But asking Kobe Bryant to rest is like trying to restrain the bulls from running through the streets of Pamplona.
Just two weeks since the injury, Bryant has already been spotted at the team's training facility working on his outside jump shot (via Mike Trudell's Vine account). Needless to say, that part of his game looks very much intact.
If Bryant returns on schedule, the Lakers will have just 36 games left in the regular season. Given their current state (13-19 and fading fast), Lakers management would be wise to suggest a slow reentry for their franchise icon, even if they are paying him more than $30 million for the season.
With a new, two-year extension worth $48.5 million set to kick in next fall, Bryant could really use the time to thoroughly rest and heal a body that has logged over 54,000 minutes during a career spanning 18 years or half his life.
With the team seriously looking to move Pau Gasol while he has value, the Lakers are obviously going nowhere this year. They've lost Gasol, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Steve Nash, Chris Kaman and Bryant to various injuries in a disjointed season that was already in trouble when Dwight Howard took his talents to Houston last summer.
Kendall Marshall, a first-round (13th pick) draft pick of the Phoenix Suns who was playing in the D-League just two weeks ago, is the current starter at point guard for the Lakers, their sixth at the position this season.
The Lakers are in a tailspin, having lost six straight games prior to Friday night's game win at home over the Utah Jazz. The team has a rough seven-game road trip coming up, and Gasol may be an ex-teammate by the time Bryant is ready to return.
Bryant said he is anxious to come back and help the Lakers get better. After signing that two-year extension in November while still in rehab, Kobe feels an added responsibility to run through a brick wall for the Lakers and give fans their money's worth.
But doesn't it make more sense to avoid the brick wall and concentrate on next season, after the team has had a chance to grab a first-round college player (maybe even a lottery pick) and go after one or two marquee free agents?
It makes perfect sense, but then Kobe Bryant honestly feels he can contribute this season and that he has a duty to the fans and the people who pay him.
Speaking with Lakers.com reporter Mike Trudell, Bryant gave a rather convincing account of his six-game progress before the second injury:
I felt like I learned that I pretty much could do everything I could before, particularly in the last game (Memphis). The biggest part of my game in the last two or three years has always been getting to a space on the floor, being able to elevate and shoot pull up jump shots and getting into the paint. It was a great test going up against Tony Allen, who in my opinion has been the guy who’s defended me the best individually since I got into the league. (It was my) fourth game in five nights and to be able to go up against him, and respond to that challenge, I feel really good about it.
Bryant is optimistic about his return to full strength, but the pundits are not so sure. As ESPN.com's J.A. Adande observed:
Kobe's determination brought him back to the court this month and even brought back flashes of his old self. But it wasn't enough to keep him from getting injured again, and provides no guarantee that it won't happen another time.
And this from Tommy Tomlinson via Forbes.com:
We can almost guarantee three things from here on out. One, Bryant will rehab with fury. Two, he’ll go back on the court with every intention of being as great as he ever was. And three, he won’t be.
This is just the cruelty of time. Everybody has to face it. And for all the benefits of being a star athlete — all the money and the attention — the athlete has to pay the debt earlier than almost anyone. It’s a fantastic party. But it’s closing time before you know it.
Exactly one year ago, a relatively healthy, pre-Achilles tear Kobe went on Twitter after a disappointing loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. His commentary then strangely mirrors what he must be feeling now.
Thoughts of self doubt...Am I done? Is this how my career will end?? I REFUSE to give in to these thoughts. #strongwill #countonchallenges
Until the injury, last season was a watershed one for Bryant. At age 34, he averaged 27.3 points on 46 percent shooting, 5.6 rebounds and 6 assists while playing close to 39 minutes per game. It was, by all accounts, a season to remember right up until he went down in a heap playing against the Golden State Warriors.
As if Bryant needs any more motivation, TNT commentator Charles Barkley spent several minutes telling an NBA audience that Kobe should "shut it down" for the rest of the season and work on being healthy for the final two years of his newly extended contract.
If there is anyone capable of returning to elite status in the NBA after such devastating injuries, it is Kobe Bryant.
He may no longer possess superhuman abilities on the court, but try convincing him of that off the court. As his recent tweet suggests: