Bryant, who will be 36 years old by the time next season starts, fractured his knee in mid-December, and the injury was too severe for the former league MVP to return in 2013-14. Sam Amick of USA Today Sports relayed the thoughts of Lakers trainer Gary Vitti on the topic:
With Kobe's injury still not healed, the amount of time he'd need to rehab and be ready to play, and the amount of time remaining in the season, we've simply run out of time for him to return. However, Kobe will have the entire offseason to heal, rehab and prepare, and we look forward to him being 100% for the start of next season.
Bryant will get an opportunity to rest a body that has been through hell going back to the end of the 2012-13 campaign.
Kobe Bryant: At Risk of Injury
It’s only natural for Bryant’s health issues to make one wonder if his body will continue to fail him going forward.
The four-time All-Star Game MVP ruptured his Achilles last season, and many wondered whether Bryant would ever retake to the court at the peak of his powers.
The five-time champion returned in December, but he looked nothing like the Hall of Fame 2-guard fans have become accustomed to seeing (the video below serves as a reminder for those that require it).
The comeback lasted all of six games, and then Bryant hurt his knee.
The Achilles tear robbed Bryant of some of his explosiveness and quickness. Consequently, the two-time Finals MVP looked out of sync. It was as if the games were unfolding a bit too quickly for him in his 29.5 minutes per game.
Bryant simply hadn’t completely recovered from the rupture, and that might have contributed to injuring his knee. Grantland’s Zach Lowe explains:
It has been fashionable to say Bryant came back too soon, or that Mike D’Antoni overtaxed Kobe by playing him heavy minutes at point guard over a four-games-in-five-nights stretch. In this telling, the Achilles tear may have contributed to a subsequent injury in the same leg, especially since it can take months or even years for players to regain adequate strength and bone mass in the leg with the ruptured Achilles. Bryant’s left calf appeared smaller than his right, a common thing after an Achilles rupture.
This suggests that Bryant was perhaps already at risk of hurting himself when he rejoined his teammates after rehabbing his torn Achilles.
If we now combine that with the fractured knee, it’s entirely possible that Bryant might have complicated his health even further had he taken the floor again this season.
Coming Back For What?
It’s fair to wonder what could possibly have motivated Bryant to take the floor again this season.
The Lakers are at the bottom of the Western Conference standings and will miss the postseason. Thus, the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer wouldn’t have done much in terms of helping the team out.
Indeed, had Bryant returned and looked even relatively healthy, the Purple and Gold could have won a few additional games, which would have hurt the Lakers’ draft position.
An argument could certainly be made that the Lake Show will benefit from sitting their superstar 2-guard. It allows the Lakers to get into the lottery and earn themselves one of the top selections in the draft.
This serves to reinforce the idea that Los Angeles is “better” without Bryant for the rest of 2013-14. One might say that Los Angeles needs its best player on the floor for the sake of creating camaraderie and chemistry going into next season, but that is not quite the case.
The only players with guaranteed contracts for next season (with no opt-out clauses for this summer) are Steve Nash, Robert Sacre and Bryant according to Sham Sports.
The Lakers lose absolutely nothing in terms of team bonding with the 16-time All-Star sidelined.
Perhaps it would have benefited L.A. if Nash and Bryant had time together to build a good rapport, but Nash will also miss what’s left of the campaign, per ESPNLosAngeles.
In essence, there is nothing for Bryant to actually come back to.
A Look Into the Future
Bryant may very well extend what’s left of his career by missing the remainder of 2013-14.
With his body breaking down, had Bryant returned to the lineup, he might have compromised his health further, and that would have jeopardized his career. Instead, Bryant will take the time to recuperate and be ready for the start of the next training camp.
In a perfect world, Bryant will defy the odds and return to an elite level.
Upon announcing his inactivity to close out the year, Bryant shared this nugget with the media, per ESPNLosAngeles: "I don't want to say I'll be back at the top of my game, because everybody is going to think I'm crazy and an old player not letting go, that sort of thing. But that's what it's going to be."
Realistically, it’s probably wise to believe Bryant will be a mix of the player who suited up in six games this season and the athlete who played at a high level prior to rupturing his Achilles.
Bryant will have nights where he looks like his old self, and there will be instances where the former Olympian simply looks like he’s lost a pretty big step. Bryant will likely have uneven performances, but the most important thing is that he will be available to play.
Kobe's contract ends at the conclusion of the 2015-2016 season, and he will get an opportunity to play it out in large part because the Lakers prudently shut Bryant down.
With 2013-14 going up in flames, Los Angeles wisely ended Bryant’s year to avoid additional physical setbacks. This gives the Lakers and their fans a chance to watch Bryant play once again, at a level fairly close to the one he previously played before he calls it quits.
The Lakers faithful deserve an opportunity to watch him depart on his own terms, and thanks to the decision to keep him out of the lineup this season, it would appear as though they will.