Why Kobe Bryant's Injury Changes Everything About Los Angeles Lakers' Future

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 21, 2013

Dec 17, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) after the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Los Angeles Lakers defeat the Memphis Grizzlies 96-92 Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

When Kobe Bryant went down against the Memphis Grizzlies with a knee injury, he did more than knock himself out of action for the next six weeks, as reported by the Los Angeles Lakers' official Twitter feed. 

He effectively changed the future for the Lake Show. 

Kobe doesn't have any magical powers that allow him to peer into what has yet to come and make alterations to his liking. Not that we know of, at least.

But he does have the unique ability to dictate the team's future actions, simply because he's such a prominent member of the organization. The injury—which you can see below—did exactly that. 

That seemingly innocent hyperextension (it wasn't innocent) against Tony Allen makes everything uncertain, both this season and after it. The Lakers can no longer assume they'll be a contending team in 2013-14, and their pitch to free agents won't be as strong next offseason. 

The injury just changes everything. 

From Buyers to Sellers

Dec 17, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol (16) drives to the basket against Memphis Grizzlies power forward Ed Davis (32) during the fourth quarter at FedExForum. Los Angeles Lakers defeat the Memphis Grizzlies 96-92 Mandatory Cr
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers actually figured to be pretty competitive this season, eventually earning the spot in the Western Conference playoffs that so many have just come to assume belongs to the team wearing purple and gold. 

Following the victory over the Grizzlies—the one in which Kobe hyperextended his knee, finished the game then later found out the true extent of the injury—L.A. moved to 12-13 on the season. It's not exactly a great record, but it's a solid mark since the team's best player had only just returned. 

At 12-13, the Lakers were still well out of the playoff picture. For now. 

They sat at No. 11 in the brutally difficult West, but they were still only 2.5 games behind the Denver Nuggets, who came in at No. 8, holding down the fort with the last of the coveted postseason berths. Surely a team that had just added a bona fide superstar like Kobe back into the mix could make up that type of gap with about three-quarters of the season left to play. 

Because of that, the Lakers were inevitably going to be buyers if anybody came around with an appealing trade offer. All it would take was one more piece, and then there'd be a chance that everything magically came together. 

Pau Gasol would start playing well. Steve Blake would eventually return. Kobe would carry the team. Jordan Hill and the host of role players on the roster would do the rest. 

There was reason for optimism, but now, that's all changed. 

As B/R's Kevin Ding states at 1:20 in the above video and continues throughout the rest of the clip, the Lakers are now going to be sellers. There's really no question about that, even though what seems like all of basketball history points toward L.A. always being in contention and competing until the team's final breath. 

Well, this injury may end up being that final breath. 

If Kobe is indeed out for the full six weeks, you can change the "may" in the previous sentence to a "will." While I hesitate to assume a human recovery period for the Mamba, he did take the full time to heal his injured Achilles, and it's not like his 35-year-old body is getting any younger. 

Yao Ming suffered the same injury and took months to return, but he obviously has to bear a lot more weight on his bones. As Mike D'Antoni said about his superstar 2-guard via USA Today's Sam Amick, "He'll be back in six weeks, and we'll deal with it and weather the storm until he gets back."

SHANGHAI, CHINA - OCTOBER 17: Legend Yao Ming chats with Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers during the NBA Cares Special Olympics Clinic as part of the 2013 Global Games on October 17, 2013 at the Oriental Sports Center in Shanghai, China. NOTE TO USER
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

So let's go ahead and assume that the mustachioed head coach of the Lakers is correct about the first part of his statement. That still doesn't mean that the second half is accurate, as the storm will be awfully difficult to weather. 

Here's a quick overview of what they're looking at over the next six weeks: 

  • 22 games, assuming that Kobe doesn't return on the final day of the six-week period to play the Charlotte Bobcats
  • 13 road games, including a seven-game stretch away from their home court. 
  • 10 games against the Western Conference, as the seven-game roadtrip is all against the East. 
  • 13 games against teams currently holding playoff berths. 

This is not an easy stretch. Instead, it's one jam-packed with tough games and lots of periods with minimal rest. 

The Lakers can forget about catching the Nuggets and moving up into the top eight in the Western Conference prior to February. It'll be all they can do to hold off the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies to avoid sinking down into the No. 13 spot. Quite frankly, their 4.5-game lead over the Sacramento Kings might not be safe. 

Once this starts to become more obvious, that's when everyone starts getting moved around. 

Even if Pau Gasol—who was recently taken off the trading block, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne—remains with the team until his contract expires at the end of the year, no one else will be safe. The Lakers have to think about trading guys like Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Jodie Meeks and Jordan Hill, receiving whatever minimal assets they can get rather than letting them walk away for free in the summer. 

Plus, B/R's Joseph Zucker suggests that this injury to Kobe could be a "tipping point," one that could push the team toward putting the struggling big man back on the market. Yes, it would be hard to trade him, but it's worth doing if the Lakers can draw a draft-day asset and expiring contract out of another franchise.

Whether or not the Lakers do indeed trade Gasol, this roster will not look the same at the end of the season. Moves will be made—they have to be made—and L.A. won't find itself playing more than 82 games this season.

The details are sketchy. The end result is not.

But that's not where the ramifications of Kobe's knee fracture draw to a conclusion.  

Uncertainty Going Forward

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 16:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands during a free throw against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on December 16, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadin
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

"Only an idiot would [doubt my return.]"

So says Kobe, according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski

Fortunately, we aren't doubting his ability to get back onto the basketball court. This isn't going to be the end of the road for a driven competitor like Kobe, especially now that he's playing out a two-year contract worth $48.5 million. But that doesn't mean we have to be completely free from doubt. 

The doubt centers around the future, not the fact that he'll eventually lace up his sneakers and step back onto the hardwood of the Staples Center. It deals with the effectiveness of the Mamba once he returns and the impact he has on next summer. 

What if he isn't able to return to superstar form? 

After all, he was struggling to play effective basketball while returning from the ACL injury, and now he has this working against him as well.

During the six games that he's suited up for in 2013-14, the Mamba averaged 13.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.2 blocks per game, shooting 42.5 percent from the field, 18.8 percent beyond the three-point arc and 85.7 percent at the charity stripe. He also turned the ball over 5.7 times per contest en route to an 11.6 PER, as shown by Basketball-Reference

As a reference point, Kobe's lowest PER since his rookie season has been 18.5, all the way back in 1997-98. He's topped 20 for each of the last 14 seasons. 

Maybe he was just rounding into form, and he'd look like a superstar, All-Star and All-NBA player by the end of the year. Maybe he'd lost a step. 

The point is, we don't know. We can assume that he's a superhuman basketball player who doesn't need to play himself back into shape, but if there's anything that the 2013-14 season has taught us, it's that thinking such things makes for a rather faulty set of assumptions. 

So there's uncertainty about Kobe's future, and that also means there's uncertainty about the Lakers' future. 

Everything had been geared toward retooling the roster in the 2014 offseason. According to ShamSports.com, L.A. has $12,660,710 committed for the 2013-14 season before Kobe's monstrous deal kicks in, assuming that Nick Young picks up his player option. That leaves the team with enough cap space to go after another max player and still have enough money left to sign more quality players.

But part of the allure was Kobe.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 16:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks looks on during the second half against the Washington Wizards at Madison Square Garden on December 16, 2013 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

This hypothetical max player—let's call him Carmelo Anthony, just to make up a name—was going to play alongside the Mamba and chase after a title during the 2014-15 season. Kobe would still have a lot left in the tank, and the two could form one of the elite duos in the NBA before Bryant firmly handed over the reins to his new teammate.

Then the new era of Lakers basketball would start.

Well, the first part of that dream scenario is no longer a guarantee. 'Melo might end up signing with the team and then struggling to keep the squad afloat as a diminished version of Kobe insists on playing with the same level of usage he's always enjoyed. It seems unlikely, but it's no longer impossible.

All of a sudden, uncertainty is the name of the game in the Staples Center.

The only way for that to change is for Kobe to shatter the expectations when he inevitably returns sometime in 2014. Until then, all we can do is wait.  


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