Kobe Bryant the Realist Faces His Basketball MortalityKobe Bryant had successful--but season-ending--surgery yesterday to repair the torn right rotator cuff that he suffered during the L.A. Lakers' 96-80 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans last Wednesday. Although Bryant will undoubtedly do his best to return to action as soon as possible (nine months is the expected recovery time for this procedure), the injury could possibly signal the end of Bryant's career; he still has not quite completely recovered from the Achilles and knee injuries that limited him to just six games last season and now he faces yet another grueling rehabilitation regime.
Bryant hurt his shoulder while converting a driving, two-handed dunk. He stayed in the game, attempting to play left-handed and even nailing a left-handed turnaround jumper before Coach Byron Scott removed Bryant from the contest. After the game, Bryant insisted that the injury was no big deal but last Friday an MRI revealed the extent of the damage. Reports indicate that Bryant may have been playing with a shoulder injury of some sort throughout this season, which could possibly at least partially explain his career-low .373 field goal percentage.
Prior to tearing his rotator cuff, Bryant seemed to be making some necessary adjustments/concessions to his age and physical limitations. During the L.A. Lakers' 109-102 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 15, Kobe Bryant posted 19 points, seven rebounds and a career-high 17 assists. The 36 year old Bryant became the oldest player in Lakers' history to have at least 15 assists in a game. Bryant returned to the NBA this season after a ruptured Achilles forced him to miss the 2013 playoffs and his recovery from that injury plus a lateral tibial fracture in his left knee caused him to miss all but six games of the 2013-14 season. In his 19th season, Bryant has been forced to accept that he can no longer single-handedly carry his team--and that he cannot play 36-plus minutes a night and that he probably cannot handle back to back games on a regular basis. This state of affairs has also been an adjustment for Coach Scott, who was Bryant's teammate when Bryant was a rookie and Scott was in his final season; the young Kobe Bryant would refuse to leave the game and occasionally might just check himself back into a contest if he felt that things were getting out of hand while he was on the bench. Prior to this season, Bryant realistically suggested to Scott that his minutes should be restricted but Scott--perhaps fooled by how fit Bryant is--thought that Bryant could handle a heavier workload. Recently, Scott trimmed Bryant's minutes and deactivated Bryant for entire games when necessary.
For most of his career, Bryant could take over games at will. Bryant understands that he can no longer do that: "Well, the Kobe from five years ago could physically pick up this whole team by myself. I've always been a realist, though. Always. I'm not afraid to self-assess and be honest about that and be brutally honest with myself. I can look myself in the mirror and say, physically, I can't do that, so I'm not going to do that. I'll do something else. I'll figure out how to do something else. You can't achieve that level of anything if you're not brutally honest with yourself, man. You've got to be. I am that. That's why you're not seeing that."
Bryant's harsh and vocal critics this season overlook that he can still impact the game in many positive ways. Bryant explains, "It's just different. It's more putting the pieces in the right place. It's more quarterbacking. It's more positioning. It's more strategic. It's less foot on the throttle. I'll be at a high level. I can get 15 [points], 10 assists, eight rebounds in 30 minutes in my sleep."
The most deceptive aspect of the aging process regarding elite athletes who work hard to stay in shape is that, superficially, they often appear to have not lost anything. For instance, Jerry Rice and Hakeem Olajuwon kept themselves in marvelous physical condition. They looked young and fit even at the very end of their careers but, unfortunately, their bodies could no longer perform at an elite level. Jerry Rice standing on the football field in his uniform in 2004 looked just as fit as Jerry Rice looked in 1985 or 1995--but in 2004 his explosiveness was gone. Hakeem Olajuwon as a Toronto Raptor in 2002 looked like a marvelously conditioned human being--but he could not play like Hakeem Olajuwon did as a Houston Rocket in the 1980s and 1990s.
Kobe Bryant version 2014-15 has more left in the tank than Rice and Olajuwon did in their final seasons--but Bryant and the Lakers have been forced to adjust to changing circumstances. It is not wise or fair to compare this Kobe Bryant to the Kobe Bryant who won five championships or the Kobe Bryant who twice carried Kwame Brown and Smush Parker to the playoffs.
In one sense it will be a shame if the last images of Bryant's career consist of Bryant shooting left-handed and trying to use his one good arm to single-handedly carry a bad team--but, in another sense, it would be quite fitting: Bryant never quits, never makes excuses, never gives in to pain or injury and always finds a way to be productive when he is on the court. Watching Bryant sink that left-handed turnaround jumper with textbook form, I thought of LeBron James--immensely talented, in the prime of his career, the most dominant player in the sport when he wants to be--talking earlier in the season about being in "chill mode." Like Michael Jordan, like most great champions, Bryant does not have "chill mode." LeBron James is bigger and stronger than Kobe Bryant and James may run faster and jump higher than Bryant did even in Bryant's prime (though it is easy to forget just how athletic the young Bryant was)--but even after belatedly learning just how hard he has to play to become a champion, James still seems to have not completely internalized just how much focus it takes to reach the highest level in Pro Basketball's Pantheon.
I try to avoid ranking players within the Pantheon but--much like I have felt for years that Bryant will never quite match up with Michael Jordan, though the gap is not as wide as some people like to believe--it just seems like James' mental game and his championship ring total will never quite match up with Kobe Bryant's. There are little things that maybe aren't so little at all that tip the balance toward Bryant. When Bryant played with All-Star big men (Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol), those players had the best seasons of their careers; when James played with All-Star big men (Chris Bosh, Kevin Love), those players had to sacrifice their games and accept lesser roles. It is so ironic that James is cast as a pass-first, unselfish player and yet Bryant has done so much more to bring out the best in his teammates. When you watch James you get the feeling that he knows exactly how many points and assists he has and what his field goal percentage is but when you watch Bryant you get the feeling that he is just trying to make sure that his team kills the opposing team and statistics be damned. If I had one playoff game to win and could take either guy in his prime the choice would be very easy.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 PM