Despite Los Angeles' 18-33 record and nonexistent playoff hopes, the Black Mamba, who has missed the last 25 games nursing a left knee injury, still intends to return this season.
"My plan hasn't changed," Bryant said Sunday, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "I'm just going about it every single day just trying to get better. That's my job. My job is to get my butt back out there on the court when I'm healthy enough to play and that hasn't changed."
Pleas to the contrary have been met with disdain. In January, Lakers legend—and frequent Lakers doubter—Magic Johnson proposed Bryant shut it down for the entire season.
"He's got to," Johnson explained, via the Los Angeles Times' Mike James. "What is he coming back to? He's not going to be able to stop the pick and roll, all the layups the Lakers are giving up. He's been hurt twice, give him the whole year to get healthy."
Johnson's stance is shared by many.
Bryant isn't coming back to much at all. The Lakers—deliberately or incidentally—are tanking. A postseason appearance is out of the question, and having been injured twice in less than a year, what's the point? Why risk further damage to those 35-year-old knees?
But Bryant doesn't think along those lines.
Although the Lakers have the Western Conference's third-worst record, Bryant's return has always been a formality. Even if the team is tanking and angling toward a top-seven draft pick, he is going to come back. That's who Bryant is.
"It’s my job and responsibility to play," he said in response to Johnson's comments, per the Los Angeles Daily News' Mike Medina.
That holds true even now, when Los Angeles' season is presumed lost.
Playing does put Bryant at risk of aggravating one of his injuries, but it's also necessary. The Lakers have big free-agency plans this summer and next, and a successful return acts as a tacit sales pitch.
Superstars are more likely to sign with the Lakers if they know or believe Bryant can play at a high level for the last two years of his contract. If he sits out the entire season, doubt arises, which could prove detrimental to the team's ambitious rebuild.
And while Bryant's return could compromise the Lakers' projected draft position, how much of a slide up are we talking about? One slot? Two maybe?
Bryant won't return to play 40 minutes a night and carry the Lakers close to .500. They're still a largely unimpressive group with him.
Not to mention, the Lakers don't look for salvation through the draft. Developing prospects isn't their bag—not when they're attempting to make the most of Bryant's next (last?) two years.
"It's very, very tough," Bryant said, per McMenamin. "I just try to be patient."
Patience will keep Bryant at bay for now, but it's not going to prevent him from returning this season. For someone like him, that's just not an option.
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