LOS ANGELES — “Let the best man win.”
That’s what Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said late Friday night, looking ahead to the rest of his team’s season with a lengthening list of healthier bodies in search of playing time. A lot of guys have contracts to earn and plenty to prove.
But the actual best man, lest anyone forget, is Kobe Bryant.
Bryant also has plenty to prove, even if the NBA’s richest contract is already signed.
The problem is his body still isn’t close to healthy, and it looks like he won’t play again this season.
After all the hype about his legendary will and incomparable work ethic going up against the Achilles tendon rupture and Father Time, Bryant might wind up losing this game, 76-6.
He has stood for only six games this season—and he’ll have sat for 76 if he doesn’t come back. That’s one blowout victory for Father Time, who is sure to point out during the on-court postgame winner’s interview that all the while Bryant has been sitting, he’s only getting older.
Asked if Bryant will play again this season, D’Antoni said, “I have no answer for that one.”
Bryant’s fractured knee won’t be reexamined by Lakers doctor Steve Lombardo for another three weeks. Given the level of ongoing soreness and swelling remaining when examined Friday night, it’s completely possible that Bryant won’t be close enough to healed even to warrant an MRI or bone scan when that time is up in mid-March.
Given the season ends in mid-April and Bryant would need conditioning work and practice time, it’s completely probable that he is done for the season.
For the Lakers to get their choice of someone in the draft to play with Bryant the next two years, him not playing and the team not winning isn’t all bad. As far as the Lakers and Bryant himself getting a gauge of how good he still is, it is very bad.
Bryant had just gotten to the point where he was feeling pretty certain about what he could still do post-Achilles when that knee buckled on Dec. 17, and the surprising fracture in the same leg was the result. About the only definitive game plan he has now is to play much more pickup ball than usual this offseason, knowing he needs to relearn the flow of the game and learn the limitations of his eroded game.
Bryant said Sunday at the NBA All-Star Game that he was still hopeful of making improvement in the knee in the next month and playing this season. When asked if he’ll still be able to drop 40 points easily after he does come back, he said, “I don’t know. That’s the challenge of it: I don’t know. I think I can. But everything I read from players is that they all think they can go out there and score 40 or 50.
“But it’s not the mind that wears down, it’s the body.”
That’s not the sort of concession one is used to hearing from Bryant as his career has advanced. He’s not so big on concessions in any context.
But if he’s going to lose this game 76-6, he’s not in great position to talk big anymore. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who signed Bryant to that contract extension before seeing him play at all this season, took up for Bryant in saying he’d seen enough this season to feel good about the major recovery.
“I was completely confident that the Achilles injury was going to have no play in his effectiveness,” said Kupchak, who also said no one should doubt Bryant won’t play next season at “a high level.”
Then again, Kupchak was definitely off when equating the current anxiety of Lakers fans over the awful season to the feelings in 2004-05, when the Lakers had traded away Shaquille O’Neal and missed the playoffs for the only time in the past 19 years.
“It’s the exact same thing,” Kupchak said.
Well, there are two major differences. Kupchak identified one of them in mentioning Jerry Buss was alive back then, so “people may have been more patient.” Kupchak didn’t mention the other difference.
Back then, Bryant was the team’s centerpiece at 26...and he was spry enough that an 81-point game was still in his future.
Now he’s the team’s centerpiece at 35, injured almost all season and unable to deliver the usual cocksure, smart-alecky retort when someone wonders if he can ever post a 40-point game again.
It’s not the exact same thing.
And, as Bryant knows, it never will be.
His challenge, which he also knows, is to make it the best it can still be, no matter if that isn’t until next season.
Even his legendary Facebook manifesto the night of his Achilles tear included seeds of doubt that he wound up stomping rather than let sprout. These days, he understandably wonders what’s going on even more.
But can still bring himself back to that place of self-belief?
Asked if he’s concerned his body is simply giving out on him, this was his answer:
“Of course. Absolutely. That’s part of the excitement of the challenge. That level of uncertainty. ‘Is this it?’ sort of thing. ‘Are my best days behind me?’ sort of thing.
“And to have those conversations with yourself and not be intimidated by that and not succumbing to that is part of the challenge. It’s really the biggest challenge, 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.”
It does look like Bryant will lose this season series to Father Time.
Eventually, though, they will meet again.