Kobe Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon late in the 2012-13 season, and the injury makes one wonder if he will be forced to redefine his game when he hits the hardwood in 2013-14.
The early prognosis had Bryant missing somewhere between six and nine months; however, it would appear as though the 17-year veteran is shattering that timetable and may be ready to rejoin the Los Angeles Lakers by the start of training camp.
That is, undoubtedly, great news for Lakers fans, given that the same injury ended Isiah Thomas’ career. To be fair, though, Bryant’s sentiments and competitive nature always revolved around the idea he would come back playing at a high level.
That may sound ludicrous at first glance, but there is precedent here.
Former Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins tore his Achilles tendon in January 1992 and rebounded the following season by averaging 29.9 points per game. Count him among those who firmly believe Bryant will be back at the peak of his powers:
"Oh, I'm not going to (doubt him)," Wilkins said. "I don't doubt him at all. Not at all. He's too much of a competitor. He's one of the most competitive guys to play this game."
Thus, Bryant is probably aiming for a recovery in the mold of Wilkins. Just remember, his return was the opposite side of the spectrum in comparison to Isiah Thomas. Although it is not impossible, it seems unlikely, given that Wilkins’ story is the only such tale in the game’s modern history.
The players who appear to be the norm, so far, are Elton Brand, Chauncey Billups and Mehmet Okur.
Okur ruptured his tendon in December 2010, played 17 games in 2011-12 and then retired. He was 31 years of age at the time he injured himself.
A 35-year-old Billups injured his Achilles in February 2012 and rejoined the Los Angeles Clippers for the 2012-13 season. He only appeared in 22 games because he dealt with an assortment of injuries.
That leaves us with Brand. The former Duke Blue Devil tore his Achilles in the 2007 offseason and managed to return to the game.
The former Los Angeles Clipper appeared in eight games during 2007-08 (he was able to return for the end of the season after injuring himself in the 2007 summer), 29 games in 2009-10 and north of 60 games in every ensuing campaign.
Brand participated in the 2006 All-Star Game and never regained that form post-Achilles injury. The big man was 28 years old at the time of the injury and offered to Jonathan Abrams of Grantland some insight of his injury late in the 2012-13 season:
[Rehab is] tedious. It’s a lot of work. We all know Kobe’s work ethic, so that’s not a problem for him. When I came back, I was explosive, for me, anyway. I felt pretty good.
That summer, the atrophy kind of set in, and I didn’t have the strength going on from there. But when I first got back, it was pretty good. It was probably eight months.
Brand is the best example when trying to figure out what Bryant will look like going forward. Indeed, he has rebounded from the tear and played in numerous seasons. That gives us a fairly large sample size of games unlike Okur and Billups.
Have a look at Brand’s shooting chart from the 2006-07 season, which is prior to his injury courtesy of NBA.com (green areas are above league average, yellow are league average and red are below league average):
Given that he only appeared in eight games during 2007-08, we will not consider his shooting chart for that season, given how small and thus inconclusive the data is. Instead, see the following two seasons.
This is his shooting chart from 2008-09 during which he appeared in 29 games for the Philadelphia 76ers:
What stands out is that he became a subpar shooter overall in comparison to 2006-07. He no longer finished well around the basket area and saw his jumper betray him. However, look at the difference in 2009-10:
It is almost identical with his 2006-07 shooting chart, save for the finishing around the basket area. It is worth noting that his role changed after his Achilles injury. With the Clippers, he was their go-to player during his best years, but his tear forced him to become more of a role player when he joined the 76ers.
Los Angeles used Brand primarily as a post-up player (particularly on the left block), whereas Philadelphia utilized him as a jump shooter and occasional post-up threat. The big man redefined his game as a jump shooter and has been quite effective in this setting.
Brand averaged 12.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per 36 minutes with the Dallas Mavericks in 2012-13.
If we now turn things back to Bryant, Brand’s evolution as a player should bring in some optimism for Lakers fans. In his quest to conquer Father Time, the two-time NBA Finals MVP has made some subtle changes to his game through the years to better cope with his diminishing athleticism.
He has been quite selective in his forays to the hoop. When he was younger, he spent a lot of time taking the ball to the basket and drawing fouls. As Bryant has gotten older, he has morphed into a lethal mid-range shooter and post-up player.
For the sake of comparison, quickly glance below at his shot chart from the 2001-02 season (last time the Lakers won a title with Shaquille O’Neal on the team):
Bryant was a great scorer from three areas on the court: basket area, top of the key and the right block. If we fast forward into the time and look at his shooting in 2009-10, we will see a huge difference:
From inside the arc, there was just no way to truly put the clamps on the five-time world champion. He was no longer the finisher he once was around the basket, but his improved jump shot has made him indefensible.
This is his shooting chart from 2012-13:
Bryant hovered a bit more close to average in certain areas inside the arc, but that was mostly a product of his teammates and the Lakers’ scheme. With Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol occupying the low post, Bryant’s shot attempts from both the right and left block took a dip.
Those field-goal attempts were, instead, replaced with three-point shots. In 2013-14, Mike D’Antoni will more than likely go back to his typical identity and use small-ball lineups to play fast.
That will allow Bryant to occupy the spots on the floor where he has been incredibly successful since winning his fifth title. Perhaps, it’s not so much that his Achilles injury will force him to redefine his game, but rather that it was always in the cards.
Bryant has willingly altered his game over the years in the same way that Brand has, as a result of his health. Except, you know, he’s Kobe Bean Bryant and has continued to play as such.
In other words, it would appear as though the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer has already adjusted his game in a manner that his most recent physical setback will not hinder his play offensively.