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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bryant's Handling of his Injuries, Lakers' Offseason Moves Provide New Perspectives on "Great Debate"

By this point, most people who are not ardent Miami Heat fans or slavish worshipers of the "stat gurus" understand that Kobe Bryant has won the "great debate" versus LeBron James; James is a better athletic specimen than Bryant at this stage of their careers and James has been a more productive player than Bryant during the past two regular seasons but Bryant is much more focused on doing whatever it takes to lead his team to the championship. Bryant also has a better understanding of how to not only maximize his individual talents but also how to inspire, motivate and assist his teammates to perform at their peak levels at the most critical moments. Although numbers rarely tell the whole story, Bryant's statistics during the past three playoff seasons are comparable to the numbers Michael Jordan posted during the Bulls' second threepeat, a similarity that I pointed out shortly after the Lakers won this year's championship.

Last week, Kobe Bryant had arthroscopic surgery on the right knee that hobbled him toward the end of the regular season and throughout the playoffs, a postseason culminated by the Lakers' second consecutive championship and Bryant's second consecutive NBA Finals MVP. Bryant had similar procedures performed on that knee in 2003 and 2006.

Amazingly, the knee was not the most difficult injury that Bryant overcame during the Lakers' championship drive; Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register explains the full extent of the damage that Kobe Bryant sustained by playing most of last season (and all of the playoffs) after sustaining an avulsion fracture to the index finger of his shooting hand:

For Bryant, the sacrifice for success could well be visible for the rest of his career in the form of something that is not another championship ring to go around his finger.

He might never play again without wearing support for his damaged right index finger.

The middle knuckle on that critical finger on Bryant’s shooting hand is so debilitated by arthritis after the past season of misuse and overuse that there may be no real way to fix it. Bryant will consult with specialists in July to figure out his options, but arthritis is not a problem that can just be cleaned up with arthroscopic surgery or wished away with a little rest.

Bryant suffered an avulsion fracture in two places near the tip of the finger on Dec. 11 as he tried to field a low Jordan Farmar pass. Bryant kept playing despite a projection of needing at least six weeks to heal--and he played pretty well. He was the Western Conference Player of the Month for December.

He wound up also the NBA Finals MVP, and he got there by refashioning his shooting stroke to put more pressure on the ball with his thumb and middle finger--trying to use the splinted index finger only as a guide. With the help of Lakers assistant coach Chuck Person, Bryant retooled his entire follow-through.

He kept playing because he was told the bone fragments could heal while he played, although he could only play if he endured brutal treatments to minimize swelling in the finger. The pressure applied to the finger by Lakers trainer/wizard Gary Vitti was akin to squeezing a tube of toothpaste with maximum force.

Ultimately, Bryant was right about the breaks healing. But even if he never would surrender, the finger did. By January, the middle knuckle on the finger was hurting much more than the top knuckle that had been fractured. The finger was so beaten down from everything, in addition to cumulative years of basketball use, that Bryant was a disaster in a brief stretch trying to shoot without a splint once the fractures were healed.

The finger ceased being a mainstream story by spring, but serious basketball people marvel at what Bryant did with (or without) that finger this season. It’s called shooting "touch" for a reason. It’s not the sort of thing that most people can overcome.

And now that Bryant played out the season with the splint and heavy tape job compensating for the lack of strength in the finger, perhaps he can never live without it.

Cartilage damage in a finger joint simply isn’t easily fixed because there is so little cartilage with which to work. For Bryant’s purposes of shooting and handling a basketball, fusing the joint is hardly a viable option.

Bryant has always been open to cutting-edge technology and treatment--whether medically with physical therapist Judy Seto or training-wise with Tim Grover or strategically with personal advance scout Mike Procopio--and will again be in this case.


The way that Bryant dealt with these injuries--first playing through pain to lead the Lakers to the championship, then having surgery early enough that he will be fully recovered before next season starts--provides a very revealing contrast with the actions of two players who were members of the Cleveland Cavaliers last season: during Shaquille O'Neal's prime (when he was a Laker teammate of Bryant's), he delayed toe surgery because--in his words--he got hurt on "company time" so he was entitled to get well on "company time" (and not ruin his summer vacation by having surgery and then going through the necessary rehab and conditioning). O'Neal's cavalier attitude (pardon the pun) and lack of professionalism while he was a Laker had as much to do with the much hyped O'Neal-Bryant feud as anything else. The toe incident is one of the reasons that Lakers' owner Jerry Buss ultimately decided to not offer O'Neal a contract for maximum dollars and maximum years; after the Lakers traded O'Neal to Miami, O'Neal won just one ring despite playing alongside first Dwyane Wade and then two-time MVPs Steve Nash and LeBron James.

James' injury resume is not as checkered as O'Neal's but it hardly matches up with Bryant's. Early in the 2007-08 season, James missed five games due to a sprained index finger on his left (i.e., non-shooting) hand; Bryant not only played through last season's avulsion fracture (though his consecutive games streak was snapped at 235 due to an ankle injury) but he also did not miss any playing time after suffering a similar injury to his right pinkie finger during the 2007-08 season.

During the 2010 playoffs, much was made of an injury to James' right elbow, particularly after James called attention to the elbow by shooting a late-game free throw left handed as the Cavs defeated Chicago to claim a 4-1 first round series victory. After the Celtics eliminated the Cavs in the next round, I wrote, "My firm belief--until proven otherwise--is that James has exactly what the MRI revealed: a bruise. James is hurt but he is not injured to the extent that he cannot function (in contrast to Kobe Bryant, who has a broken finger on his shooting hand and a troublesome right knee that kept swelling up after every game toward the end of the regular season)." Whatever was wrong with James' elbow, there is no reason to believe that it was nearly as badly injured as Bryant's knee or finger and I doubt that it was even as serious as the sprained ankle that "only" qualified as Bryant's third most troublesome injury down the stretch.

During the playoffs, some Cleveland media members--the very same people who are trashing James left and right now that he abandoned the city--insisted to me that James was so seriously injured that he might be dealing with nerve damage in his elbow. I always found that notion absurd on many levels: (1) I do not believe that media members who struggle to understand basic basketball strategy are competent enough to accurately diagnose injuries; (2) I do not believe that a player who easily lobs half court shots at the basket during warmups has a debilitating injury; (3) except for the drama surrounding the late game free throw versus Chicago (and a few times that James theatrically rubbed the elbow to draw attention to it even though he professes to be a "no excuse" player), James was not visibly hindered in any way--his range of motion was normal and he appeared to possess full strength. I expressed skepticism about the extent of the elbow injury from the start, so no one can say that my opinion on this matter has been colored by the way that James handled his departure from Cleveland--but it is very hypocritical for certain Cleveland media personalities to cover up for James when
when they thought that he would be a Cav for life and only now criticize him; I have consistently both praised James when he played well and criticized him on the--rare but increasingly frequent--occasions that he either played poorly and/or demonstrated poor judgment.

*****

The same L.A. Times article that reported about Bryant's knee surgery also contained this interesting tidbit: the Lakers expect to be able to re-sign free agent guard Shannon Brown, who earlier opted out of a contract that would have paid him $2.15 million next season.

It has almost become reflexive for most media members to preface any mention of the Lakers with the phrase "deep and talented." I disagree with the idea that the Lakers are the league's deepest and most talented team; the 2008 Lakers had good depth but were not very talented compared to the other elite teams, while in the subsequent seasons the Lakers became more talented--Andrew Bynum developed into a quality starting center and Ron Artest signed as a free agent--but they became less deep as their bench became depleted due to roster moves, injuries and regressions in performance (most notably by Sasha Vujacic). After the 2009 NBA Finals, I compared the Lakers to each of the championship teams since 1991 and concluded, "The 2009 Lakers do not look that imposing when compared to most of the aforementioned teams. Bryant, a former MVP who surely would be on any future 50 Greatest Players List, was option 2 (or perhaps 1B) for the three Lakers' championship teams earlier in the decade. Second option Pau Gasol has earned one All-NBA Third Team selection in his entire career and has never received a single MVP vote. He would have been the third option on the vast majority of championship teams since 1991, including all six Chicago championship teams, as well as the 2000-2002 Lakers, 2006 Heat, 2007 Spurs and 2008 Celtics."

Shannon Brown ranked 13th in playoff minutes for the Cavs team that advanced to the 2007 NBA Finals. His shooting percentages have improved since he joined the Lakers--much like Trevor Ariza's did, probably from a combination of getting more open shots because of playing with Bryant and because of benefiting from Bryant's detailed advice about how to become a better shooter--but Brown's per minute production in several key categories (including scoring, rebounding, steals and blocked shots) has not increased appreciably as a Laker; that is why it is so significant that Brown ranked seventh on the Lakers in mpg during both the 2009 playoffs and the 2010 playoffs. There is a widely accepted mythology that the 2007 Cavs were a weak team that made it to the Finals either because they were lucky or (according to the "stat gurus") because James should be considered to be borderline superhuman; the reality is that the 2007 Cavs were a much deeper team than most people think and that they were strong defensively and on the boards. James certainly played brilliantly that season but the 2007 Cavs had so much depth that the seventh man for the past two Lakers' championship teams could not even crack their rotation.

Brown opted out of his contract because he thought that there would be a market for his services but he has discovered that the truth is what I have been saying all along: he logged so many minutes for the Lakers the past two years mainly because, contrary to popular belief, the Lakers simply lacked quality depth. Sixth man Lamar Odom was a quasi-starter during most of that time period because Bynum was either out of the lineup or else limited by injuries, so Brown was the Lakers' de facto best bench player--but the total lack of interest around the league now for his services shows that NBA executives realize that he is nothing more than a solid NBA player. If the Lakers were truly as deep as so many journalists suggested then wouldn't teams be salivating over the opportunity to acquire the Lakers' de facto sixth man?

Meanwhile, Jordan Farmar left the Lakers to sign a free agent deal with the New Jersey Nets. Farmar has deluded himself to believe that he is good enough to start in the NBA even though he could not beat out Derek Fisher--the least productive starting point guard among the league's top contenders--despite being given every opportunity to do so. Farmar will be a backup in New Jersey, too, and--much like Trevor Ariza--if he is given a bigger role than he had with the Lakers then his efficiency will probably decline even if his per game statistics improve.

The Lakers did not stand pat as Farmar departed and Brown found out that his services are not highly in demand; the Lakers signed point guard Steve Blake, small forward Matt Barnes and center Theo Ratliff. If Brown ultimately re-signs with the Lakers his minutes will almost certainly drop next season because Blake and Barnes will figure prominently in the rotation (both Blake and Barnes can play shooting guard in certain matchup situations).

Assuming that the Lakers stay reasonably healthy and that their main rotation players perform at expected levels this season they actually will not only have a talented starting lineup led by All-NBA players Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol but some legitimate depth for the first time in a while.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:39 PM

11 comments

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11 Comments:

At Monday, July 26, 2010 11:52:00 AM, Anonymous Ilhan said...

The extent to which Bryant's injuries have been underplayed by the media is, in my opinion, borderline criminal, even without the revealing contrast to O'Neal and James. In particular, the way he managed the index finger injury (pain management, retooling of his shot!, etc.) is nothing short of amazing. Much, much more impressive, at least to me, than, say, a "Flu Game" and a salient feat that is sure to remain as part of Kobe's legacy.

Until now, I've thought that you've banged on the "he was the 13th man on the Cleveland team which only became deeper and he is the best bench player on the Lakers" point a little too much. One could always retort: "That was Brown's rookie year and he got better since then" (or at least became a veteran of the NBA game). Yet, the lack of interest around the league for Brown now, after a second title and with all the unspent free agent money, does, indeed, speak volumes about Brown's perceived value and the alleged depth of the Lakers the past two years. I think this is a better argument for your point apropos of the Lakers *depth* than the "13th man".

With regards to the other end of the "13th man" argument, namely that the Cavaliers weren't the one man show the LeBron-frenzied media portrayed them as being, I guess we could get some sort of an idea in the coming season, if Mike Brown, Z and Shaq were still with the organization. Now, it will not be possible for any side of the debate to convince the other.

By the way, I agree with you on both points. It's just that "13th man", in my eyes, does a disservice to them.

Will you be writing on the Miami team (at some point during the summer, before your season previews), now that the supporting cast is more or less determined? They look seriously imposing as of now.

Glad to have you writing with relative* frequency again, David, thank you!

*"Relative", of course, to your absolute prime, when you used to write extensively on games almost everyday. It really pisses me off that the writing and blogging "game" hasn't been kinder to you and that we need to prod you for new material while someone like Trey Kerby gets paid by Yahoo! to do whatever it is that he does everyday.

 
At Tuesday, July 27, 2010 1:53:00 AM, Anonymous JackF said...

@David,
yea i agree with a lot of things llhan has said about the blogging world not being appreciating your blog. I'm sick of reading Kelly Dwyer's rants on Yahoo! or Henry Abbot's emotionally charged writing on TrueHoop. Don't even get me started on Hollinger who needs stats to backup anything he says.

on Lebron: It funny how the media has ignored Lebron not having any kind of surgery to fix the "elbow" that bothered his play. It's also shocking to hear some of the demands Lebron made on the Cavs organization. Demands such as: "players wives'parking spot given to his friends, his friends on the payroll of the organization, his friends ride with on team plane...." and a whole bunch mind opening demands he made on that organization.
Adrian Woj is the only national writer i think who tried to expose the extent of Lebron's ego. You can feel his frustrations(borderline hate) with lebron's antics and disrespect of the game. He was the first one who reported Chris Paul signing with Lebron's marketing team. You know what happened next.

On Kobe: If Ron Artest can follow kobe and look to him for approval, that has got to mean something. Not only that it seems that a lot of the great players and coaches have a great amount of respect for Kobe too. Jerry West is the only person I've heard say on national TV that the roster that Kobe was working with wasn't as talented as some might have thought.
Also, I can't imagine Kobe walking away from a back 2 back 60 wins team to go play with Lebron and Wade or any other combination of 2 of the top 10 players in the NBA.


on Matt barnes: Definitely an upgrade. I can't wait to see how he improves his game once he starts playing alongside Kobe. I dont listen to pundits because they are basically the same people who disregarded Ariza as just a "dunker" before he came to LA and somehow became super-talented....

on Steve Blake: Definitely an upgrade over Farmar. it's amazing how Farmar felt so entitled to the starting PG spot yet he never could take it from Fisher. now he is going to last years worst team where he will do the same thing and earning the same paycheck(weird aint it?_

on Theo Ratlif: I dont really think he's an upgrade over Mbenga. Mbenga was younger and mroe talented then at this point but less cerebral and more error prone. I'd still take Mbenga over him though.

 
At Tuesday, July 27, 2010 1:55:00 AM, Anonymous JackF said...

on Steve Blake: Definitely an upgrade over Farmar. it's amazing how Farmar felt so entitled to the starting PG spot yet he never could take it from Fisher. now he is going to last years worst team where he will do the same thing and earning the same paycheck(weird aint it?_

on Theo Ratlif: I dont really think he's an upgrade over Mbenga. Mbenga was younger and mroe talented then at this point but less cerebral and more error prone. I'd still take Mbenga over him though.


on CBA-Salary: why is it that nobody is mentioning that the NBA has become stagnant league business wise? yea revenue increases but the amount of teams profitable is really small.
Why cant the agents and players realize that the NBA needs a hard cap and partially guaranteed(A la NFL) contracts?
you have players getting maxed deal which takes up 30-40% of the team's cap. how can the league expect teams to be profitable? for the value of teams to be raised, they need to bring in profits yet the nba has become a league where you can't win if you don't go over the salary cap. Mid-level + bi-annual exception further add to that "cap".
You have owners from small market teams saying they should get part of bigger market teams revenue, basically cutting into that team's profit. How asinine an idea is that? They already share the TV rights deal, now they want to punish teams that run their franchises well?? It'd be great to see writers cover this topic more extensively...

 
At Tuesday, July 27, 2010 3:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ilhan:

Unlike LeBron James, Kobe Bryant truly is a no-excuse player, so Bryant simply does not talk about his injuries unless he is directly asked about them--and even when he is asked about them he usually does not say much. Bryant was a little bit more expansive after the Finals ended, revealing that it frustrated him when some critics suggested that he was aging instead of acknowledging that Bryant was in fact dealing with several significant injuries.

It is a fact that Brown ranked 13th in playoff minutes played on the Cavs' 2007 Finals team and that fact is important because he has been seventh in playoff minutes played for the 2009 and 2010 Lakers' championship teams despite no appreciable difference in his game statistically or from a skill set standpoint. The 2007 Cavs' roster was better and deeper than is generally suggested and the 2009 and 2010 Lakers' rosters were not as good or as deep as is generally suggested; I have consistently made those twin contentions and I have provided a lot of evidence to support those contentions. The lack of any interest around the league in Brown is yet another piece of evidence supporting what I have been saying for years.

The departures of Ferry, Brown, Z, Delonte West and, presumably, Shaq mean that next season will not provide any meaningful information about how good the Cavs would have/could have been without LeBron; the 2011 Cavs will be a completely retooled outfit but if the Cavs do poorly you can be sure that many people will say that this "vindicates" LeBron (I already am reading and hearing such rumblings even now).

 
At Tuesday, July 27, 2010 3:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack F:

Perhaps some people are slowly beginning to realize just how correct my criticisms of ESPN and Abbott are in the wake of the way that ESPN shamelessly sold out to LeBron and the way that Abbott has subsequently taken up for LeBron when most rational people understand that LeBron handled himself poorly.

The less said about Dwyer, the better off we all are.

I think that Hollinger is one of the more rational "stat gurus" simply because he does acknowledge the limitations of the numbers, at least in the articles that I have seen; he will usually say something along the lines of "I created a formula based on A,B and C; this formula states X,Y and Z but readers should be aware that other factors could also have an impact." I do not get the sense that Hollinger believes his numbers to be flawless to the extreme extent that Berri does.

Barnes and Blake should prove to be key additions. The Lakers actually have some legitimate depth now.

I don't expect Ratliff to have a huge role but he is a more skilled player overall than Mbenga.

The CBA stuff is not covered more extensively because the CBA is actually quite complicated and most fans are not interested in hearing about balance sheets and financial data. It is interesting that on the one hand the league and the owners cry poverty but then during the free agency period so many teams are willing to spend tons of money--and in many cases they paid more for players than those players are objectively worth. That dichotomy will be difficult to explain when the league and the union negotiate the next CBA.

 
At Tuesday, July 27, 2010 6:58:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

David:
Regarding Bryant saying "I'm not getting old; I was hurt!" in the post-Game 7 press conference—

When you get to be 32 years old as he is, don't you think "aging" and "hurt" start to merge together in meaning? When he was 24, his injuries probably healed faster. He will assuredly have a nice block of time this summer to recover from knee surgery, train his body for next season, etc., but he still won't have the same fresh physical condition as he had in 2002.

 
At Tuesday, July 27, 2010 7:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

No one is suggesting that Kobe Bryant can turn his biological clock back to 2002.

Bryant's point is that he has not experienced a significant reduction in his physical capabilities due to the aging process (he can still run, cut, jump, etc.); the broken finger had nothing to do with age, while the knee injury can be fixed surgically and is not necessarily age-related. Bryant is contending that once his health is restored to normal levels his productivity and efficiency will rise. Based on how well he played during the first several weeks of last season--prior to the broken finger, injured knee and sprained ankle he was the best player in the NBA--there is ample reason to believe that he is correct. Bryant's efficiency and productivity during the playoff drive after he got his knee drained is also quite remarkable.

 
At Wednesday, July 28, 2010 8:39:00 PM, Anonymous JackF said...

@David
I know but Hollinger just wrote a piece on ESPN.com stating that the LAKERS were one of the biggest offseason losers. HE also added that the Heat will win the title next year. This is the same guy who crowned the Cavs as champions the past to seasons saying both times "It's time to crown the king"! only to end being wrong.

On Lakers backup center: WOuldn't keeping DJ Mbenga for the same price be the ideal move the Lakers could have made? He is younger and more talented then a 38 year old Theo Ratlif. There hasn't been any reports that he wasn't willing to take the league minimum.

on Farmar: Do we see him regretting this move the same way Trevor Ariza is doing now? It was reported that Trevor was annoyed over leaving the Laker(latimes blog). Why would farmar go and be a backup for the same salary on a team that's had the worst record in the NBA?? Is this another case of overestimating one's skills? Last time I check, Avery Johnson is much more controlling HCoach than Phil Jackson ever was. He has no tolerance for PGs that plays no defense...

on MVP : Who do you see winning the MVP next year? I wonder if the writers will dismmiss their "he's working with less talent excuse" this coming season....

 
At Wednesday, July 28, 2010 11:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JackF:

I did not read that particular article so I cannot comment about it. Regarding last season, I also picked the Cavs to win the championship--and they should have won: they posted the best record, they had the regular season MVP and their roster was deep and talented. Unfortunately for the Cavs, LeBron decided to quit.

I just am not as enamored with Mbenga as you are. Mbenga is a very limited player and that is why he rarely got on the court. Ratliff is a much better player but the only question is how much he has left in the tank--but the worst case scenario for the Lakers is that Ratliff will ride the pine/get emergency duty like Mbenga did last season. Also, as of right now Mbenga has not signed with another team and I doubt that there is a huge market for him so maybe he will end up back with the Lakers anyway. There is no market for Shannon Brown so why do you assume that teams are anxious to sign Mbenga?

I don't know if Farmar will regret signing with the Nets because I don't know what his mindset is but in my opinion he should have been happy to stay with the Lakers as a backup.

The top three MVP candidates will probably be LeBron, Kobe and Durant. I think that if Kobe stays healthy he has a good shot because there probably will be some voter backlash against LeBron. I would just like to see the player who performs the best actually win; if LeBron has the best regular season then he should win even though he handled his free agency situation poorly. If Kobe is healthy and plays like he did in the first six weeks of last season (and during most of the playoffs) then he should win. Likewise, if Durant or anyone else emerges as the best player then that player should win.

 
At Saturday, August 07, 2010 2:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you were interested--I traced Kobe's knee injury back to Jan. 29, when the Sixers hosted the Lakers.

I'm sure you can find a highlight of the play, which Brand twisted Kobe's ankle and knee. Asked about his _ankle_ after the game, Kobe said: "I was more concerned about the knee. I thought I might have hurt the ligament structure in there."

I found the footage, of the second half, five videos (length ~45-min); injury in the first minutes of the first video.

01/29/10: LAL@PHI part 1/5
01/29/10: LAL@PHI part 2/5
01/29/10: LAL@PHI part 3/5
01/29/10: LAL@PHI part 4/5
01/29/10: LAL@PHI part 5/5

Regarding the first comment about MJ's "flu game" according to Sam Smith, the author of The Jordan Rules, was caused by staying up all night, drinking and gambling the night before.

 
At Sunday, August 08, 2010 12:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Thank you for the links to this footage. I found the play that you are talking about but this is not the knee injury that ultimately required surgery; that injury happened to Kobe's right knee. The play versus the Sixers is how Kobe's left ankle problem got started and later that issue became exacerbated when Kobe's leg got entangled with Odom's in a subsequent game versus the Hornets on February 3. That ankle injury--and not the knee or the finger--ultimately ended Kobe's consecutive games played streak.

I had not heard that story about the "flu game" but it does not surprise me, though I believe that the "official" version at the time was that MJ had some bad pizza and suffered from food poisoning.

 

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