For far too many times, Derek Fisher witnessed Kobe Bryant’s greatness that he longer became surprised by it. While the two teamed up to win five NBA championships with the Lakers, Fisher saw firsthand Bryant overcome nearly every ailment imaginable, including sprained ankles, surgically repaired knees, a concussion and bouts of food poisoning.
Currently with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Fisher no longer has a first-hand view of Bryant’s preparation. But the two remain close friends. Even if Bryant stays sidelined with a fractured left knee without a definitive return date, Fisher still remains determined his former Laker teammate will return with enough effectiveness to rank among the NBA’s elite. But that’s apparently not the only question mark Bryant’s currently contemplating.
“There’s a lot more to it than just him coming back from the injury that is impacting him psychologically, At this point in his career, he’s also thinking about having an opportunity to win a championship again before retiring,” Fisher told this newspaper after Oklahoma City’s (42-12) morning shootaround at UCLA in preparation for tonight’s game against the Lakers (18-34) at Staples Center. “I would assume when he’s sitting there, it’s not just about him coming back from an injury. He’s thinking, ‘Where are we going, what are we doing?'”
The Lakers signed Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension even before returning this season from a torn left Achilles tendon. That ensures Bryant will play 20 years with the Lakers through the 2015-16 season. But it remains to be seen whether the Lakers’ decision to ensure Bryant stays the NBA’s highest paid player will still enable them to build a championship caliber roster around him. The Lakers have enough financial flexibility to pursue one high-level free agent in the next two years instead of two. The Lakers’ persistent losing could help them secure a high pick in this year’s star-studded NBA Draft. The Lakers also have until the Feb. 20 trade deadline to acquire young assets, draft picks and/or shed salary.
Meanwhile. the Lakers have gone 6-21 since Bryant’s absence and have dropped to 14th place in the Western Conference. That’s why Fisher suggested the success of Bryant’s remaining career could depend more on his supporting cast than how he overcomes his latest injury.
“His ability to adjust and adapt and how fundamentally sound he is is why he’s one of the greatest,” Fisher said of Bryant. “He’s always been prepared to face the realities that we all face as we age. Physically, you may not be able to run as fast, jump as high and explode as much. But when you’re as skilled as he is, you can still go out and dominate games and be extremely effective. But how that plays out, a lot of it depends on the team and what they build around him. We’ll have to wait and see on that one.”
Bryant’s built an extensive track record in overcoming injuries. But he’s encountering a much different challenge.
Bryant missed the first 19 games this season while rehabbing his left Achilles tendon. He has sat out the past seven weeks because of a fractured left knee. During a six-game stretch this season, Bryant has averaged 13.8 points on 42.5 percent shooting, 5.7 turnovers and 6.3 assists, a far drop from his career 25.5 points on 45.4 percent shooting, three turnovers and 4.8 assists.
“He’s been forced to handle the situation differently in terms of being patient,” Fisher said. “These are not injuries you suit up and play though like he’s done so many times. I’m sure it’s been an emotional rollercoaster in terms of frustration, anger, reflection, patience, perserverence. But I don’t think there’s anybody else that is capable of continuing the good fight through everything he’s worked himself through. I don’t see this as any different.”
How does Fisher comprehend the 35-year-old Bryant relying on his proven past in overcoming the most serious injury he’s ever faced in his 18-year NBA career?
“As tough mentally as he is, he still understands reality,” said Fisher, who played with Bryant for 12½ seasons before being traded in 2012 to Houston in a salary dump. “I don’t think he’s looking at as ‘This is just another injury and I’ll be fine.’ I think he’s handling it the best way he can handle it in terms of not being able to do what he loves to do. I’ve never seen him so positive, reflective and continuing to support his teammates and continuing to be a leader through a very tough situation, not just for him personally, but with the direction of the organization for the nearly last 20 years he’s been helped to put at a certain level.”
Fisher hardly has such worries with the Thunder, which leads the Western Conference and boasts the NBA’s top leading scorer (Kevin Durant). Oklahoma City has secured such a spot despite the long-term absence of former UCLA product Russell Westbrook (knee). In what will mark his last NBA season of a 18-year career, Fisher has also shot 58 percent from three-point range in the past 13 games.
But Bryant’s season-long injuries has struck Fisher emotionally.
“I was feeling bad for him and knowing how hard he works to get back to have something like that take place so quickly,” Fisher said. “Most of my emotions were tied to how he was feeling. From there, obviously as a player with the same amount of years in the league, it reminds you of how fragile your time is in this business and how you really have to enjoy every moment and make the most of it. On one play, everything changes.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org