Kobe Bryant and the concept of "can't" have never gone together.
He can't successfully come back from two severe injuries at 36 years old, with nearly two decades of NBA wear and tear on his treads and inordinate amounts of self-foisted pressure on his back.
Supernatural work ethic and competitive fire in mind, Bryant could be done. He should be done. His 78-game on-court attack in 2012-13 will go down as his swan song, the last time Bryant is remembered for being Bryant.
That's what his strongest skeptics will say without hesitation. They won't bend to Bryant's unfathomable drive. They won't submit to his self-endorsing droplets of wisdom.
Is this decision to doubt him, to write him off, something Bryant will make them come to regret? Or are his agnostics the ones with a firm grip on reality?
Doubt is everywhere as it pertains to Bryant. But so, too, is optimism.
"I'm not worried," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told Sports On Earth's Lyle Spencer. "Kobe looks great. He's had two rough years. The Achilles was a freak thing, and the knee—I'm not sure anybody can predict that kind of thing. He's actually been healthy since May. He's ready, motivated. And he's engaged."
For every one person who believes Bryant is finished, there are more dreamers and idealists subscribing to different logic. Many of them are members of the Lakers organization itself, like Kupchak. Anyone responsible or who had a hand in offering him that two-year, $48.5 million extension before he even returned from a ruptured Achilles can be colored a believer.
This is one of the many things often lost on said extension. It's quickly cited for its ridiculousness. Ensuring that Bryant remains the highest-paid player in the NBA through 2015-16 is questionable at best, if not insane.
Defenses of said deal are even less common this side of his latest knee injury. Those bold enough to justify it frequently turn to Bryant's off-court value. He is a brand himself—a moneymaking powerhouse on his own. He is the Lakers.
On some level, though, the investment is about faith. Part of the organization has to believe he can return amid fanfare and peerless anticipation only to defy conventional thinking again.
Why else would a transitioning Lakers team assemble a supporting cast that, while cheap, is enough for Bryant himself to believe?
"It's my job to go out there next season and lay it all out there on the line and get us to that elite level," he said while reflecting on Los Angeles' offseason.
The roster isn't being mythologized in Bryant's mind, nor are the standards he's holding himself to being inwardly fabricated. The Lakers will ask him to do things. Big things. New head coach Byron Scott is already counting on him to be the glue holding everything Lakers together.
"I am looking forward to having Kobe as a guy that I can turn to and say, 'Let's get the ball to this guy, and he can make things happen,'" he told CBS Los Angeles' Jim Hill.
What he's able to make—or not make—happen will define his second return.
Adjusting the Concept of Success
Cautious optimism on behalf of the Lakers creates expectations—unclear expectations.
Ask Bryant, and he'll talk about the playoffs. He'll discuss competing for a championship. He'll tell you all the things that Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer and Julius Randle can do. He'll argue in favor of himself and his capacity to carry an entire team.
Realistically, though, the Lakers aren't a championship team. Even if Bryant were five, seven or nine years younger, this Lakers squad would remain a placeholder for what the franchise hopes is better days.
Expectations must be adjusted accordingly.
Skeptics aren't those who think Bryant and the Lakers won't win a championship next season. They are the realists. Bryant's season cannot be written off no matter what he does just because a team that's not built to contend didn't contend.
Non-believers are the ones who are precluding Bryant from being successful on an individual scale. Questions about his health will be met with pessimism. His potential to prosper statistically will be scoffed at. They will not be sold on his ability to remain elite.
The grounds for such thinking aren't unwarranted completely. Bryant isn't going to match his otherworldly efforts from 2012-13 point for point, minute for minute.
Scott isn't going to play Bryant 38-plus minutes a night the way Mike D'Antoni did then, making it hard for him to duplicate his statistical output. He became the oldest player in league history to average at least 26 points, five rebounds and six assists per game during the 2012-13 campaign. To believe he'll rival those numbers is to set him up for failure, because the Lakers aren't going to put him in a position to go that bonkers.
Instead, Bryant will be measured against more general feats.
Can he stay healthy? Can he adjust his game to accommodate his new limitations? Will he be productive at all, able to function as a No. 1 offensive option on a team that still needs him to score and make plays?
Those are the tasks—among others—Bryant is up against. They're what he's been up against since rupturing his Achilles in April 2013. For him to silence his critics, this return, like the one before it, needs to carry substance. It cannot be purely symbolic.
That's a harrowing chore by itself. And it's one in which The American Journal of Sports Medicine (h/t Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com)—responding to Bryant's placement within ESPN.com's 2013 player rankings (No. 25)—found evidence to suggest cannot be completed after looking at 18 players who suffered the same Achilles injury:
Of those 18 players, 7 were never able to return to NBA action, 3 returned for just one season, and the remaining 8 would go on to play 2 or more seasons. And of those players that returned, their performance suffered drastically, especially in their first season. In their study of the 11 players that returned to the NBA, the players' PER (player efficiency rating), decreased by an average of 4.57 points. In the second, it decreased by 4.38 points.
... If you decreased his PER by the average reduction of 4.57...you’d find that Kobe would’ve ranked 49th in the league last year, some 24 spots higher than where ESPN has him in their NBA Rank. Kobe is an animal, but the stats indicate that the anger towards his NBA Rank of 25 is far from justified.
History is further against Bryant after his latest setback. It also doesn't help that he regressed into a defensive liability during his last dominant season.
The Lakers—who finished 18th in defensive efficiency that year—were 4.4 points worse per 100 defensive possessions with Bryant on the floor, according to NBA.com. How is he supposed to be a two-way player now? Without the comfort of Metta World Peace or Dwight Howard? When he already started devolving into a one-sided contributor?
Past examples—like that of Elton Brand—work against Bryant. Age works against Bryant.
Part of Bryant's historic 2012-13 crusade works against Bryant.
Defying each form of logic, and each piece of evidence, is the only way Bryant silences his doubters.
Disproving the Immeasurable
So, can he? Can Bryant quell the cries of detractors? And if so, what will that look like?
Measurable expectations are the enemy here, because they don't exist.
There is no statistical calculation that will draw the line between success and failure. No definitive number of wins or losses makes judging his second return any easier. The answer to our query is fluid, and as Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard inadvertently alludes to, located within the presence of expectations themselves:
At this point, Bryant has institutionalized his mentality. Again and again over the week, he repeats his mantras, telling the Chinese kids to 'be strong' and 'learn from failure' and 'never stop working to get better.' Here is the thing: Bryant encourages these kids to grow from weakness, but he never shows any himself. You know how Kobe deals with a torn Achilles? He tries to pull the damn thing up, then stays in the game to take, and make, two free throws. Aging? Kobe has publicly scoffed at the notion that Father Time is undefeated. Armed with a roster of Lins and Boozers, Kobe says he’s thinking championship. And he really does buy into this stuff.
In other words, let the question be the answer.
None of this would be an issue if we weren't discussing Bryant. We wouldn't have to entertain his capacity to prove people wrong—and to what degree he can prove those people wrong—if he weren't himself.
This is what makes him Bryant: the fact we're wont to dissect otherwise absurd claims he makes and beliefs he has.
Imagine if another player Bryant's age had suffered these injuries less than a year apart. Steve Nash, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are the only qualified players aged 36 or older to post a player efficiency rating above 20 since 2009. Would they have been expected to perform at that exact level following similar setbacks?
Late 30-somethings coming off two major injuries aren't supposed to be counted on for regular minutes and consistent contributions. Bryant will be.
Nineteen-year veterans who have come to grips with their own basketball mortality aren't sources of anomalistic bravado most 25-year-old All-Stars wouldn't dare embrace. Bryant is.
Fading stars who are actually finished, who are wholly incapable of matching or exceeding the expectations set in front of them—whatever they may be—don't incite this seemingly unnatural debate.
Bryant has, which tells us all we need to know about this 36-year-old: As loud and logic-loaded as his most strong-willed critics may be, the possibility that he spits in their face and vanquishes their doubt is stronger, because it exists at all.
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