It would have been laughable if it wasn’t so tragic—Kobe Bryant coming back from a devastating injury that nearly ended his career and being pressed into running the point by Mike D’Antoni.
Can we dare to hope the same thing doesn’t happen again next season?
It was early December, and the Los Angeles Lakers superstar was about to return to action, nearly eight months after tearing the Achilles tendon in his left leg.
It had arguably been the biggest story in sports all summer.
But as Bryant, with a rich new two-year extension in hand, was taking his first steps back on the practice court, an oddly parallel story was playing out.
The Lakers, barely a month into their regular season, had already blown through all their point guards—Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar were sitting on the sideline with a variety of injuries.
The initial plan had been for Bryant to ease his way back into the game, either in his normal shooting guard role or at the small forward position, which would have put even less stress on his surgically repaired tendon.
It wasn’t to be. Instead, he got tossed right into the fire with the most demanding job in D’Antoni’s run-and-gun offense. At the time, Dave McMenamin for ESPNLosAngeles.com reported on the head coach’s matter-of-fact assessment:
“He’s going to have the ball. So, whenever you have the ball you’re the point guard.”
According to Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times, Bryant responded to questions about his coach’s battle plan with a dry smile.
"Unfortunately, yes. I don't really have much of a choice right now. I've got to do a lot more than expected in terms of handling the ball and doing significantly more running."
Six games later, the Mamba was back on the shelf with a fractured left lateral tibial plateau—the part where the shin meets the knee. The injury would wind up keeping him out of action for the remainder of a historically bad season—the Lakers are currently at 25-50, with seven games left on the schedule.
You can make the argument that the knee injury was not the result of Bryant manning the point—that it was just a freak accident. Like all the other freak accidents that derailed the team this season.
The same argument can be made for the Achilles injury—that the massive amount of minutes Bryant was logging before the injury happened, had no correlation at all.
Kobe’s minutes he’s played, the time he’s been on the floor, the duress and the way he's played has taken a toll, obviously. And his injury, I think, was part of the chain of events that happened because of his Achilles tendon. And, y’know, unfortunately it set him back and now he's got a knee injury.
Yes, we can understand there was a reason Bryant was pressed into service, that all the real Lakers point guards were injured. It’s kind of like having a good reason to borrow money from your parents, long after you shouldn’t have to.
With Bryant out of commission again, management did what they should have done in the first place, signing somebody whose natural position actually jibed with the team’s gaping need—in this case, Kendall Marshall, a young refuge from the Delaware 87ers in the D-League.
At any rate, it’s all water under the bridge, and this dreadful season will soon be over. Fans can only hope that what seems to be a bizarre Groundhog Day ritual, will come to a close and that next fall will start afresh.
Bryant’s most recent injury was initially diagnosed as having a six-week recovery and it’s alarming that it has taken so long to heal. There’s the very real possibility that age has simply caught up with one of the league’s fastest healers—someone who has always been able to bypass pain and adjust to setbacks.
Per Mark Medina for The Los Angeles Daily News, Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently attested to Bryant’s work ethic but also expressed reservations about the future:
“Kobe is very dedicated that way. He’s worked on his body, but he’s having major failures and not just minor stuff. Spontaneously breaking a bone is not a good sign.”
By the time training camp rolls along, Bryant, entering his 19th season, will have played just six games in 18 months. Those aren’t the type of numbers we are accustomed to. They are also worrisome from a conditioning standpoint.
You can do all the rehab in the world, but there is no substitute for game time. It’s often the long layoff that really does an aging athlete in—the muscles wither and dry up like old sponges without oxygenated blood being pumped into them by the cardio intensity of full-court continuous action.
Being on a treadmill is no substitute.
What kind of player Bryant is able to be next season will be largely influenced by being put into a position to succeed. The ability to get to his sweet spots early, creating space at either the short corner or just outside the block, will be important.
Playing at the small forward position would allow him to expend less energy, something that would be especially important in the early part of the campaign as he starts to get those oft-injured legs back into game condition.
In the above-referenced NBA TV interview, Jackson was asked whether the Lakers star could come back again and still be effective. The former coach said yes and that he could see Bryant posting up, playing the screen-and-roll and getting his shots, including three-pointers.
Maximizing Bryant’s capabilities in these final two years will also mean being in sync with his coach. It’s no secret that the L.A. veteran isn’t a fan of small-ball, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude a working partnership with D’Antoni.
In theory, anyway.
Each NBA season brings a renewal, the chance to start fresh and learn from prior mistakes. Let’s just hope that Bryant isn’t asked to run the point again.