If you’re one with the mindset that the Los Angeles Lakers made the correct decision to shut down Kobe Bryant until next season, there’s no arguing it.
It’s been said over and over through social media debates and shouting matches: there’s no point to risk further injuries and jeopardize the next (and last) two years of Bryant’s illustrious career.
Understanding a couple reasons on the opposite side of the spectrum is important, however.
There’s nothing you can do about the fans that don’t enjoy looking at the NBA with a long-term frame of mind. With crazed Kobe fanatics (we’re all guilty, stop hiding it), an expectation of dominance is just ingrained in our heads. Playing 17 prior seasons with the Lakers, Bryant has spoiled the team’s fans by staying away from major setbacks, such as an ACL tear. Returning from the Achilles injury in early December and breaking the 20-point mark in three of his six games played, Bryant only pushed fans to wanting more.
Once the left tibial plateau fracture sidelined the five-time champion – in a game where he finished and nailed a game-clinching bucket – it was thought to be six weeks before he returned to practice and re-entered game action. Swelling and pain continued to haunt the knee, and Bryant remains limited to workouts on an elliptical that he’s probably ready to throw across the room in disgust.
Aside from the fact that he’s the most determined athlete this league has seen since Michael Jordan, there are numerous factors that play into why Bryant wanted to return for the final month of the 2013-14 season.
When a player faces adversity and the national attention swings from being in awe of your skill to just waiting for the next wave of bad news, an assassin mentality arises even quicker. Proving doubters wrong became Bryant’s goal, and the final chunk of the regular season would’ve been enough to simmer the negative chatter before next year.
Two weeks ago, after a series of brutal losses for Los Angeles, Bryant sounded off with a message to the ones enjoying a historically down year for the Lakers:
“What I’d like everybody to do is to really just sit back and just absorb this year,” Bryant told LA’s Power 106 radio. “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.”
He then added the newly famous line that should’ve grabbed the attention of his fellow opponents.
“Appreciate it now. Let it sit in now, because revenge is sweet and it’s quick.”
The negative energy Bryant’s name sparks in debates these days is becoming absurd. Considering this is his first true injury-plagued season, the doubting (as well as the Derrick Rose related jokes) surrounding his health need to come to an end. They shouldn’t have even started. Every player in professional sports tends to go through at least one season of health disappointments, and some are lucky to return in the same manner they were remembered by.
The 2013-14 campaign was the bug year for Bryant, and there’s nothing wrong with that when you consider the totality of his 18-year career. He’s on the books for $48.5 million over the next two years, keeping his legacy intact with the Lakers. He’s not only earned the respect that says people shouldn’t attack his game, but also should remind people that he went down last April while putting the team on his back to fulfil the “playoff promise.”
If Bryant needed any more motivation to throw on the purple and gold this season, could it be that he’s just flat-out ready to watch the ball drop through the net again?
Scoring has been the Black Mamba’s cup of tea his entire career, especially when he took the league by storm in the 2000-01 season. Lighting up the league for 28.5 points per game in his fifth season (on a championship roster), Bryant’s scoring average rose a whole six points (22.5 in 1999-2000) and he appeared to enter the small category of NBA elites.
A pure scorer can only stay away from the court for so long before misery sets in. For Bryant, that misery set in during the dreaded Achilles rehab, which focused on physical therapy instead of basketball related workouts.
While he claims it means absolutely nothing to him, the thought that he’s missed valuable opportunities to increase his career point total could also be factored into the anger.
Bryant currently sits fourth in the All-Time NBA Scoring department, behind only Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This season was supposed to be the landmark year that we witnessed a student pass their teacher on the list. Entering the league in 1996, Bryant idolized Jordan and emulated him on a daily basis, dating all the way back to his days on the playground in Italy. It wasn’t a secret that Bryant received his share of advice and inspiring moments from his role model, especially after impressing Jordan on multiple on-court battles the two encountered in the early years.
Before taking his game to the next level, Bryant had to develop an arsenal with a perfect mixture of aggression and finesse that took the life out of opponents. By imitating Jordan and adding his own personal flair, Bryant evolved from the baby snake that needed guidance throughout a game, to a Black Mamba equipped with enough venom to draw triple teams during an 81-point night.
Jordan sits just 592 points ahead of Bryant on the league’s scoring list. The benchmark I’ve been on record giving Bryant next season is a 27 point per game standard, and that’s with one of the most hellacious offseason training programs. Without that, there’s little chance he’ll be up to the physical task considering today’s NBA is jam packed with athletic freaks. At 27 points per game, Bryant would need 22 games to surpass Jordan for third on the “Mount Rushmore” of scorers.
As far as reaching Abdul-Jabbar’s level is concerned, that’s out of the question, guys.
Averaging 27 points per game during his final 164 regular season games (assuming he misses zero), Bryant would need to average 40.8 points per game if he indeed plans to retire after 2015-16. That’s not happening, since Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387 points reach a new level of insanity every time we analyze the matter.
Rising the ranks of the career scoring list is not Bryant’s focus moving forward, or what he ultimately wants to be remembered for.
Championships, to the 16-time All-Star, are all that matter. Given the state the Lakers will be in when November rolls around, the last honest chance he’ll have at more bling is the 2015-16 season…his last ride.
Kevin Love is taking up Los Angeles’ entire radar when it comes to free agency recruiting, and the front office seems fully content on passing up Carmelo Anthony‘s potential opt-out in New York this summer.
One thing is almost for certain in Hollywood (no, not losing), and it revolves around a head coaching change at the season’s end. Incumbent Mike D’Antoni is highly doubtful to return to the team next season, with the general census being that he’ll finally be ousted by Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak.
Bryant, who once called D’Antoni an “offense genius” days after he was hired in November 2012, offered his take for a change on the sidelines:
“I think we have to start at the top in terms of the culture of our team,” Bryant said after being ruled out for the season. “What kind of culture do we want to have? What kind of system do we want to have? How do we want to play? It starts there and from there, you can start building out your team accordingly.”
The culture of the team, if Bryant is 100 percent driven to collect his sixth NBA championship, needs to stray away from D’Antoni. He’s a quality coach when he has the right pieces on a roster, but a championship level coach is one that excels despite having guys that don’t necessarily fit your sacred system. As once discussed, a defensive culture is the only change that will get this franchise back on top before Bryant hangs up the No. 24, and that matches a few coaches who will be available for the Lakers to choose between.
Bryant isn’t getting younger and Jim Buss isn’t getting wiser. Phil Jackson is now controlling his own issues alongside James Dolan, leaving the Lakers with only a prayer for the future.
Regardless of how long they’ve been with a team, players can’t control how well the front office operates. In that regard, Los Angeles will only go as far up the championship ladder as the Buss family can take them.
What is controllable, however, is how poised and vigorous the franchise superstar is for the next two seasons.
Bryant still owns the key to Los Angeles, and he’s not ready to put the ride in park …. just yet.
“I don’t want to say I’ll be at the top of my game, people saying (I’m old or crazy). But that’s what it’s going to be.”
The Last Chapter is set to be a thrill.
Shane Young is an NBA credentialed writer for ESPN TrueHoops’ 8pt9secs and HoopsHabit.com. For all Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, or general NBA coverage, follow @YoungNBA and @HoopsHabit on Twitter.