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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 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