Things are progressing slowly for Bryant, who suffered a knee fracture six games into his return from a ruptured Achilles and has not played since Dec. 17. At the time it didn't appear the 35-year-old's latest brush with mortality would keep him sidelined for the remainder of 2013-14.
But that was then, this is now.
Bryant was re-examined by a team physician recently, according to The Orange County Register's Bill Oram, and the results weren't encouraging. Oram says he will be evaluated again in "three weeks," which at this point, isn't good news.
At 19-37, the Lakers don't have much, if anything, left to play for. With each day that Bryant remains sidelined, the likelihood of a return this season diminishes considerably, as does the need and desire for him to even come back.
Through it all, Bryant maintains he's trying to come back this season.
Blinders or not, Bryant is running out of time. Likewise, the Lakers are running out of use for him.
Why would the Lakers want Bryant to return this season? As an audition.
Big things are expected from the Lakers this summer and next, when they're projected to have financial flexibility and the means to sign players capable of pushing them outside the lottery. Landing those free agents becomes easier if prospective targets know what they're getting into.
As I wrote in a previous column:
Whatever superstar the Lakers seek this time can have the best of both worlds if Bryant can still play. His contract runs out in 2016, at which point the keys will be handed over. Until then, be it for next season and the one after, or just the one after (Love), he can welcome the opportunity to play with a healthy Bryant.
That's important. Incredibly important. Bryant accounts for $23.5 million of Los Angeles' salary obligations in 2014-15 and $25 million in 2015-16, severely hamstringing the Lakers' ability to surround him with talented role players—especially if they plan to add another star (they do).
The sooner Bryant returns, the more time he has to show he can regain form. On the flipside, the less time he has, the less likely that is to happen.
Bryant won't come back to new-found explosion and stat lines so pretty they put Derek Jeter's dating diamond to shame. If and when he returns, it's going to take time for him to be effective.
When he first played this season, he hardly looked like the Bryant of last year. Though he cleared 20 points on three separate occasions through six appearances, he went for under 10 three times as well, and under five once. He was also shooting 42.5 percent from the floor overall and 18.8 percent from deep, noticeably below his career marks of 45.4 and 33.5, respectively.
This summer, when free agents are looking at Los Angeles' immediate prospects, that's the Bryant they'll remember, which isn't good. Bring him back too late this season, though, and it stands to look even worse.
"That’s the challenge of it," he said, per Washburn. "I don’t know. I think I can [return to form]."
Not this season he can't. Not if he won't be eligible to return with 10-15 or fewer games remaining.
One of the few things Los Angeles has left to play for this season is player evaluation.
MarShon Brooks, Kent Bazemore, Wesley Johnson and Kendall Marshall, among others, are all competing for a chance to remain part of the Lakers' plan beyond this year. Even if Bryant returns, they will each be given ample opportunity to prove themselves worthy of an extended stay.
Ideally, though, Bryant's return would give coach Mike D'Antoni and general manager Mitch Kupchak the opportunity to see how their current players interact and perform alongside the future Hall of Famer. That's not going to happen at this point.
Three weeks from now, the season will be winding down. Any version of Bryant that Bazemore and Marshall, and everyone else, plays next to won't be Bryant. The Lakers will instead get some distorted look into a future they don't plan on having.
You might say that's better than watching them play without Bryant—which isn't true.
If Bryant doesn't have enough time to recapture rhythm and flow, the Lakers are better off letting this season play out while independently grading what little healthy talent they have.
Be honest, what would you rather see: Bazemore, Marshall and others playing stellar basketball for the next 20 games, only to see them struggle alongside a marginalized Bryant for the season's final six, or any of Los Angeles' question marks playing unfiltered and unimpeded basketball for the remaining 26 contests?
There shouldn't even be a question. The latter is a more effective and fulfilling scenario. That is, unless Bryant is able to return sooner rather than much, much later.
Which he's not.
Risk Outweighs Reward
Is it even worth the Lakers and Bryant going through the trouble of his comeback now?
Right now, yes. Bryant's unrelenting motor makes 20 or so games of him chasing his former self more entertaining and useful than most in this situation.
But Bryant isn't going to come back right now, or even in three weeks. Best-case scenario would have Bryant returning a minimum of four or five weeks from now, when he's had time to practice and acclimate himself outside an anti-gravity (treadmill) lifestyle.
By then, having him return is largely pointless. This is coming from someone who predicted Bryant would come back this season, and who knows Bryant can still come back this season. He's not someone who will shut it down unless medically told to do so. If there's an opportunity for him to return, he's going return.
Heading into the season's home stretch, that potential return is approaching meaningless and even in danger of becoming counterproductive.
What if Bryant comes back and plays so poorly free agents aren't confident in his ability to play at a high level for the life of his new extension? Worse, what if he re-injures himself? And assuming he dodges injury and subpar play, what do the Lakers realistically have to gain? A win or two or three?
Los Angeles isn't a team that rebuilds through the draft, but it's currently tracking toward top-five lottery contention in the deepest draft class since someone by the name of LeBron James came out of high school in 2003. Impatient fanbase and front office in mind, moving forward with a top-five selection brightens an outlook already in doubt.
"Well, I just stick to the script," Bryant said while in New Orleans for All-Star weekend, via Washburn. "Just try to get better and then go from there."
Returning makes sense for Bryant and the Lakers if he can play soon. If unable to make "soon" a reality, then it's better for all parties involved to let 2013-14 run its course sans Bryant instead of jeopardizing all they're hoping to accomplish beyond this season.
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