Kobe Bryant's Achilles Ruptures Under the Weight of the Lakers' Ineptitude"Go down as you live."--"Super" John Williamson's motto, imploring his teammates to not let pressure-packed situations alter their mindset or their approach; Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson, who was a teammate of Williamson's, adopted that phrase as a mantra that he often shared with his players
The L.A. Lakers 2012-2013 season went sideways from the beginning--a winless preseason, the premature firing of an excellent, defensive-minded coach, an incredible wave of injuries to key players--and it never got straightened out: the team lacked cohesion and only sporadically played hard. Kobe Bryant tried to singlehandedly cover up every weakness and shortcoming: some nights he exploded for huge point totals and other nights he masterfully dished off assists, all the while alternating between being a roving help defender patrolling passing lanes and being assigned the task of checking the speedy point guards who no other Laker can corral.
In the last few games, Bryant played almost every second of every contest while trying to carry his desultory squad to the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs; his team was helpless and/or clueless without him on the court, so he did not rest despite battling a host of nagging injuries and, while it cannot be proven that the extra work load caused his Achilles tendon to rupture, it is logical to assume that it is not optimal for an aging, banged up athlete to push himself to that extent. Yet Bryant would have had it no other way and he surely preferred to go down swinging as opposed to resting on the bench while his teammates fumbled and bumbled the season away. Bryant is frustrated about suffering the most serious injury of his career but he understands that there is no time in life for rumination about the past or for worrying about what might happen in the future; it is vitally important to live in the moment and "Make each day your masterpiece" because the opportunity that you have right now may be the only opportunity that you get. Bryant has made it clear that his top priority is to win one more championship ring, matching Michael Jordan's six and topping Magic Johnson's five--and Bryant elevated his game to new heights in a desperate attempt to lift the team on his shoulders but just two days after Bryant authored a stat line never before seen in NBA history (47 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four blocked shots, three steals) he suffered the now much replayed and much discussed season-ending Achilles tendon injury. One moment Bryant was at the top of his game and the next moment he was embarking on what will be a grueling rehabilitation regimen. Come back with your shield or on your shield is the old warrior's creed and Bryant lives up to that as much as any other modern athletic gladiator.
Was it foolish to play to exhaustion just to try to get the last playoff spot and then likely lose in the first round of the playoffs? Should Coach Mike D'Antoni have limited Bryant's minutes if Bryant was unwilling to voluntarily do so? Would Phil Jackson--who often put four bench players on the court with just one starter even in the NBA Finals if Michael Jordan needed a rest--have encouraged or even permitted Bryant to shoulder so much weight that his leg literally collapsed under the heavy burden?
It is easy for an outsider to conclude that the Lakers' frenetic pursuit of the opportunity to get blown out in the first round is much ado about nothing and it is reasonable to wonder if Bryant's minutes could/should have been managed differently--but that is not how a Cleaner like Bryant thinks. A Cleaner does not see problems, he sees challenges.
I tuned in late to Friday night's Lakers-Warriors game and I only saw the final moments--but as soon as I realized that Bryant was not on the court with the result up for grabs I figured that he either had been ejected or he had suffered a season-ending injury. When I eventually watched what happened--how Bryant suffered a knee injury and a foot injury but did not miss a second of action until his Achilles exploded--I was impressed but not surprised: Bryant's high pain threshold and his reluctance to leave the court under any circumstances distinguish him even from other tough NBA players; Paul Pierce left game one of the 2008 NBA Finals in a wheelchair only to triumphantly run back onto the court a few minutes later and Dwyane Wade left the court in a wheelchair after he dislocated his shoulder. In contrast, Bryant walked off of the court unassisted, walked back onto the court unassisted and made two free throws with a completely ruptured Achilles tendon!
Bryant epitomizes "Go down as you live." Pro Bowl linebacker Chris Spielman once said that if he ever got injured seriously enough to need help to get off of the field then he would retire--and when that happened he did retire. You were never going to see Spielman rolling around in a wheelchair and then running back on to the field like he had experienced a miracle at Lourdes; if he was not badly hurt then he was going to keep playing or he was going to leave the field under his own power to get treatment but if he was seriously injured then he was going to find another line of work. Bryant is the first person I have ever seen who tried to walk with a completely ruptured Achilles tendon in order to see if he could "get the feeling back" in his foot.
This is not a requiem for Bryant's career; the time for that has not yet come, because a man who walks off of the court with a ruptured Achilles tendon is surely going to run on to the court at least one more time after that Achilles tendon heals. Yes, the reality of the situation is that it will be difficult for Bryant to come back from this injury and it will be even more difficult for him to come back as an above the rim, explosive player. I expect Bryant to return to action in record-setting time but there are limits to what even his mind and body can accomplish; he will likely have to adjust his playing style to accommodate his rebuilt tendon and his soon to be 35 year old body that has logged more than 50,000 NBA minutes. Think of how Air Jordan became Ground Jordan, setting up shop in the midpost area; Bryant already has a deft midpost game but he will probably have to rely on it more than ever. He may have to accept reducing his minutes to the 30 mpg range, along with a consequent reduction of his scoring average to around 20 ppg. Both for Bryant's health and with an eye toward the future, the Lakers need to push Dwight Howard to the forefront; Howard must dominate at both ends of the court or there is no reason for Bryant to return because the Lakers will not contend for a championship unless Howard maximizes his potential.
Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have complained that they do not get enough touches; now they have the final two regular season games--plus a playoff run, if they can earn it--to show exactly what they can do without Kobe Bryant carrying them, bailing them out and spoon feeding them for easy baskets. If Bryant cannot return to action by the start of the 2013-14 season--though he apparently has every intention of being ready to play by that time--then Howard and Gasol will have a more extended opportunity to showcase their skills and justify their whining but, however long they end up playing sans Bryant, they are going to discover that it is not so easy to score when opposing guards are sitting in their laps in the post because the defense does not have to trap Bryant.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM