As great as the 2014 NBA All-Star Game turned out to be, it was still overshadowed, at least in part, by those who weren't fit to participate—chief among them, Kobe Bryant.
A fracture in his left tibial plateau forced Bryant to sit out what would've been his 16th All-Star Game after being voted in as a Western Conference starter by the fans. Instead, Anthony Davis and James Harden—the former taking Bryant's spot on the roster, the latter sliding in as the West's starting shooting guard—combined for a forgettable 18 points in a record-breaking 163-155 loss to the Eastern Conference squad.
Bryant, though, didn't resign himself to being just another face in the crowd at the Smoothie King Center. He was as ubiquitous as any NBA figure was in New Orleans over the weekend. He talked to the attendant media, showed up on stage during Sunday's pregame introductions and even joined Marv Albert, Reggie Miller and Steve Kerr on the mic during the showcase itself.
Chances are, Kobe will be an All-Star so long as he's still suiting up for the Los Angeles Lakers. He's arguably the most widely recognized active player the NBA has to offer, thanks to an all-time great, championship-laden career as the leading man of the league's marquee franchise. If his name is on the ballot, fans will flock to see him through, regardless of his concurrent on-court contributions.
That's not going out on a limb, either. The guy pulled in close to a million votes this year, despite playing in just six games between his recovery from a torn Achilles and his more recent knee troubles.
Whether Bryant will ever deserve to play in another All-Star Game is another story entirely. At his age (35) and with his mileage (more than 54,000 total minutes over 18 seasons) and extensive medical rap sheet, Bryant isn't likely to ever be completely healthy again, much less play like the Black Mamba to which we'd all become accustomed prior to that unfortunate night in April 2013.
A Positive Spin
During his press conference at All-Star weekend, Bryant didn't just acknowledge the extent to which his body is in decline. In typical Kobe fashion, he embraced it as a source of motivation for what figure to be his final two-plus years in the NBA.
"That's part of the excitement of the challenge, that level of uncertainty... are my best days behind me sort of thing," Bryant explained, via Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears. "And to have those conversations with yourself and not be intimidated by that and not be – not succumbing to that is part of the challenge.
"It's really the biggest challenge is saying, well, maybe this is the end, but then again, maybe it's not. And it is my responsibility to do all that I can to make sure that it's not. So that's really become the biggest challenge."
That mindset, that belief that anything can be overcome with the proper regimen of hard work and supreme self-confidence, is what's driven Bryant to the pinnacle of NBA superstardom since he entered the league as a cocksure teenager in 1996. It's what's helped him to persevere through pain, injury and misery before and to emerge as a champion on the other side.
The Mamba's Mortality
But even that might not be enough to render Bryant's Sisyphean quest to regain his former glory a successful one—or even a realistic one, for that matter.
First and foremost, nobody, not even Bryant, knows when he'll be back this season. It's been exactly two months since the injury bug came back to bite him during a road win over the Memphis Grizzlies, and the timetable for his return remains up in the air.
"It's coming slowly. It's coming slowly," Bryant said of his knee during his All-Star presser. "I'm optimistic coming out of the break that I will have some improvements, once I get back to L.A. and do a couple follow ups and then go from there. But it's been a slow process."
The news could be worse, though it hardly grades out as "good," given that this injury was originally expected to be one requiring four to six weeks of recovery. At this rate, Bryant might need double that (i.e. eight to 12 weeks) to get right. Even if he's cleared by the Lakers' team doctors to resume activities in the next few days, he'll probably have to spend at least a week or two (if not more) practicing with his ever-changing cast of teammates before he's ready for live-game action again.
And it's not as though Kobe was comfortably at that point before his left knee betrayed him. He performed unevenly during his six-game stint in December, averaging a whopping 5.7 turnovers therein.
Granted, some of that sloppiness stemmed from Bryant's ill-fated attempt to fill in at point guard with Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar all sidelined—and before Kendall Marshall made a name for himself under Mike D'Antoni's tutelage. And, to Bryant's credit, he registered 13 assists in one game (a 25-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder) and chipped in 20 or more points on three other occasions.
But his timing was off more often than not, and he was clearly a step or two (or three) slower than he had been previously. Bryant still has a long way to go before he's fully grasped the limits of his new corporeal reality and may never reach that point if he winds up ensconced in a vicious cycle of age and injuries, not unlike the one in which Nash has been trapped since his second game as a Laker.
Each setback will only be more difficult and require a longer and more grueling rehab, since each will likely bear some connection to an injury that came before. It's entirely possible that Bryant's left tibial fracture had something to do with the rigors of recovering from the ruptured Achilles tendon in his left foot, or that it stemmed from the myriad maladies in his left leg through which Kobe had soldiered for years.
A Basketball Wasteland
Even if Bryant happens upon some Panglossian luck and the "best of all possible worlds" unfolds with his current rehab, what exactly would he be returning to? Pau Gasol could be gone by Thursday's trade deadline. If Gasol is still around, he might not be healthy enough to play on account of a strained right groin.
That's merely the beginning of the Lakers' litany of infirm, between Nash (nerve root irritation), Farmar (strained left hamstring/calf), Nick Young (bone bruise/fracture in his left knee), Jodie Meeks (sprained right ankle) and Xavier Henry (strained right knee).
Not to mention the bum elbow with which Blake has been playing.
A younger Kobe might've been able to perform like a superstar alongside the likes of Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly, Wesley Johnson and Shawne Williams. Then again, even the 2004-05 Lakers (i.e. the only other losing team on which Bryant has played) sported two other All-Star-caliber talents (Lamar Odom and Caron Butler) and several veterans to lend an in-his-prime Bryant a helping hand.
Now, Kobe is nine years older and more banged-up, surrounded by the most threadbare roster this side of the Mississippi, if not in the entire NBA. At the moment, he doesn't have anyone who can realistically make his life on the court much easier and allow him to focus on what he does best: score.
That won't make his transition back into the flow of the game any smoother. Without another Laker worthy of substantial attention from an opposing defense, Bryant will likely face double- and triple-teams on a regular basis. While the Kobe of Old wouldn't have flinched in the face of such obstacles, Old Kobe won't have that luxury, not in the absence of the quickness, athleticism and stamina that once set him apart from his peers.
Bryant might not have to go it alone for long, though. The misery of the 2013-14 season, through which the Lakers have compiled a worst-in-the-West 18-35 record, figures to yield a prime pick in what's expected to be a loaded 2014 NBA draft. L.A.'s odds of adding a young, franchise-defining star (Andrew Wiggins? Jabari Parker? Joel Embiid? Dante Exum? Julius Randle?) in June improve with each depressing-yet-empowering defeat.
Moreover, the Lakers could have substantial cap space this summer with which to add an impact player via free agency. They may not have the resources or the sheer winning magnetism to pry an opt-out-eligible superstar (i.e. Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh) from his current club, though they should be well within striking range of Luol Deng, Lance Stephenson and Eric Bledsoe, among others.
A solid draft here, a few key additions there and, voila, the Lakers should be back in the business of winning basketball games and jockeying for a playoff spot in short order. Even if they don't make any blockbuster moves this summer, the Lakers can count on a loaded free-agent class in 2015, with Kevin Love as the most obvious target, to boost them back into championship contention and, of course, shift some of the pressure for the team's results away from Bryant.
Put Kobe next to a blue-chip prospect and another established All-Star, and he'll have every opportunity to settle in as a scoring specialist and perimeter facilitator on a team with bona fide title hopes.
Who knows? He might even have a game here and there wherein he looks, plays and produces like his superstar self. If Michael Jordan could top 30 points on 25 occasions as a member of the Washington Wizards in his late 30s and early 40s, why can't Bryant do the same?
This Is the End?
Well...because Bryant, unlike Jordan, is coming off a pair of major injuries. And if the Lakers bring in more talent over the next couple of years, they won't need Bryant to put up big numbers.
Let's not forget, MJ wasn't "elite" when he came out of retirement a second time. The best of the best carry their teams to the playoffs, and Jordan, despite his best efforts, couldn't keep the Wizards from posting back-to-back 37-45 seasons.
That'll be the case for Kobe until/unless he gets some help. Once that happens, the Lakers won't necessarily return to prominence because of him.
If anything, they might do so in spite of his very presence. Between his cap-clogging contract extension (two years, $48.5 million), his reputation for being a "difficult" teammate, his questionable health and his precipitous decline on both ends of the floor, Bryant could wind up as the single biggest impediment to the Lakers' return to the top of the NBA, whenever that may be.
Will the Lakers be title contenders again before Kobe Bryant retires?
It's strange to think about it that way, if not downright sacrilegious in some corners of Lakerland, but such a situation isn't without recent precedent in pro sports. Look no further than the Green Bay Packers, who didn't claim their fourth Super Bowl crown until three years after Brett Favre, as imposing a franchise fixture as the NFL had seen in some time, was forced out to make way for Aaron Rodgers.
Of course, there is no Rodgers-like successor waiting in the wings behind Bryant right now. And the Lakers, for their part, won't have any leverage with which to dispose of Kobe between now and the summer of 2016.
Still, there's such a thing as hanging on too long. Bryant, for one, has spoken on numerous occasions in the past about how he doesn't want to be "just" another player in the NBA, how he wants to be able to perform like a superstar if he's going to continue on.
In that case, Bryant may have no choice but to recalibrate his own expectations so that they more closely align with his actual capabilities. Otherwise, he'll "have to" slink out of the limelight much sooner than he originally anticipated.
That, according to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, isn't something Bryant's going to do—not yet, anyway:
I bumped into Kobe as he headed to his press conference. "You're not announcing your retirement are you." His response: "(Bleep) that."— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) February 17, 2014
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