Looking back, it was kind of an inevitability. The highly publicized rehab, the public comments, the constant fiddling around with social media strategies. Kobe Bryant knew. The Lakers knew, or at least had a feeling, long before word began trickling down to the public.
For the second straight year, Bryant will end the season on the injury list. Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding first reported Tuesday that Bryant will be officially ruled out for the season this week, a conclusion that will expose the league's worst-kept secret.
The Lakers are 22-42, tied for the worst record in the Western Conference. They are no longer a basketball team but a semi-lovable group of miscreants playing an entertainingly terrible brand of basketball designed to win ping-pong balls.
And Bryant, probably in no big hurry to share a court with a sad-sack roster, has been dropping hints going back to the All-Star break.
In a promotional interview with Jacques Slade from Kustoo.com, Bryant intimated he wasn't nearly ready for game action yet:
It’s progressing slowly. It really tests my patience. There’s only so much I can do. I find myself relegated to a bike. The first few weeks, it’s cool. I’m getting a good workout in. Third or fourth, I’m thinking I need to do something else. I want to play. I want to run. I want to do something different. But you got to do what you got to do.
These were the things we knew. Even if Bryant came back for a late-season run to test his legs, not even his fresh coat of paint could fix this ramshackled house. But once the Lakers and Bryant add finality to the equation, acknowledge that his rehab failed, a light gets cast upon the unknown.
What happens next for the Los Angeles Lakers?
In some ways, the picture is clearer than ever—only split into two distinct frames. On one side, a former purple-and-gold demigod who, over the past 11 months, has slowly begun coming to grips with his mortality. On the other, a franchise beholden to that star—both by choice and obligation—and unsure of what in the blue hell comes next.
When Bryant signed his two-year, $48.5 million contract extension in November, many (including yours truly) derided a seemingly short-sighted move. How could the Lakers, run so diligently and brilliantly for almost their entire history, make the NBA equivalent of a designated hitter the league's highest-paid player?
For his age-36 and age-37 seasons. Without so much as a game back from a career-threatening Achilles injury. Sure, there's history there. Sure, Bryant probably wouldn't feel right coming back to the floor without financial security.
But $48.5 million? That was a disaster waiting to happen.
And so it was, playing itself out far quicker and in a far more sinister fashion than even the most schadenfreudian Laker hater could find joy. Just six games in, there was Bryant again, on the floor writhing in pain. Substitute Los Angeles for Memphis and a knee for a foot, and the whole thing felt eerily similar
Only this time fate's cruelty made him sit and wait with uncertainty before twisting the final knife.
Since Bryant's injury, there has been a growing sentiment the Lakers knew they were getting into a bad deal when they signed it. That they knew they were going to be terrible for the next couple years, and why not honor their greatest superstar of this generation with one last big payday?
Kobe will be climbing up the all-time scoring list, and that will assuredly keep ticket sales coming in for a crummy team.
The problem with that theory is that, well, it's total and complete nonsense.
When the Bryant deal was signed, Lakers and Bryant himself trumpeted a narrative saying they still have room for one maximum-contract free agent this summer. Whether that was Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James or Chris Bosh—whatever. The Lakers are coming after your best player, and it was all going to work out because that's just what happens.
And even as all logic put a big, neon "NOT HAPPENING" sign above the Staples Center, it was impossible for anyone to totally discount the plan. Again...because history tells us these things just kind of happen to the Lakers.
Bryant's injury has fundamentally altered those plans. It was a stretch to believe any of those players would leave their current digs to play with a 36-year-old Kobe.
Now? Not happening. Take out your Sharpie.
Carmelo isn't leaving his own dilapidated hellscape in New York City for the broken-down bungalow in Los Angeles. LeBron and Bosh ostensibly have intelligence quotients above zero. And although there are other options who will be available this summer, this isn't a franchise that will insult its fans by trying to sell Luol Deng as the turnaround point. (The Cavaliers on the other hand...)
Ding reported the Lakers were, at the moment, not planning to use the stretch provision on Steve Nash this summer—a move that could save them $6-plus million in the 2014-15 cap.
A max-level player is still possible with Nash and Bryant on the books, but that would require renouncing the rights to pretty much everyone on the roster. Given the promise shown by some of the lottery-busts-turned-contributors on this roster, a Carmelo-level splash is likely out of the question. Instead, the Lakers are planning a slower build, with the summer of 2015 looming as their time for free-agent expenditures.
Being terrible again in 2014-15 was always the prudent move. The Suns have the Lakers' 2015 first-round pick, but it's top-five protected. Next year's class pales in comparison to the ballyhooed 2014 one-and-doners—and could be worse if the NBA enacts a 20-year-old age limit—but building around two high lottery picks is never a bad thing.
The Lakers are learning what others already knew: Sometimes it pays to be bad. Just don't let them talk you into thinking this was always the plan.
Convincing Bryant that's the right way to go is another story entirely.
Realizing his mortality or not, Bryant is the last player you want near a bad basketball team. His competitive nature is legendary, as is his unrelenting and demanding leadership style with young players. Just ask Andrew Bynum how many brunches he and Kobe went to during his first couple seasons.
And Bryant was already talking a big game for next year in a recent interview with Power 106:
This year, we all know it’s been a real tough year for us, right?. So what I’d like everybody to do is to really just sit back and just absorb this year. Take it all in. Sit back and watch and listen and hear all the hate that’s being thrown at us and remember every person that’s kicking you when you’re down, because next year it ain’t gonna be this way.
I believe he means that. Bryant's episode of Hoarders would be old videotapes and DVDs of Lakers wins.
There is no basketball for Kobe Bryant if there is no winning. There's only snarling unhappiness like he exhibited in the first couple post-Shaq seasons. Those years were the best individual heights of Bryant's career, taking rosters not much better than this one to the playoffs while putting on dizzying displays of offensive brilliance not seen since Jordan's heyday.
There's probably part of him, deep inside, that still thinks he can do that. That he can take Kent Bazemore and Kendall Marshall and Nick Young and what's left of Nash, turn them into something resembling a team and lead them to respectability.
It's the want and the desire that's enveloped his whole career. It's what made him think he could come back after the Achilles injury at peak form and again after the knee. It's what's made him great and what makes this season so sad and dispiriting in retrospect.
Bryant needs to be great and the Lakers to follow his lead. For the first time in his career, though, Bryant is realizing he may no longer have a choice.
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