The obstacles seem stacked against Kobe Bryant. This time, the challenges do not involve endless double teams, elevating an inconsistent supporting cast, overcoming low shooting accuracy or competing against a competitive Western Conference.
Instead, the opponent involves Father Time, the foe that has knocked Bryant down for three consecutive seasons. It has become something far more vicious than the Boston Celtics ever delivered. The outcomes have resulted in Bryant shattering his left Achilles tendon in the 2012-13 season, fracturing his left knee in the 2013-14 campaign and tearing his rotator cuff in his right shoulder in 2014-15. Yet, with Bryant planning to have surgery on Wednesday morning to treat his right shoulder, the Lakers remain convinced their 36-year-old star will tackle and overcome his latest challenge with the same vengeance he has with everything else.
“I don’t see Kobe as a type of guy who wants to leave his legacy on those terms,” said Lakers coach Byron Scott, who mentored Bryant his rookie season 19 years ago. “He wants to go out on his own terms.”
The Lakers will not release a timetable on Bryant’s recovery until he has the surgery. But Scott confirmed what seems obvious.
“We know that Kobe’s probably not going to play,” Scott predicted.
But the Lakers hold out hope that Bryant will fully recover in time to play the final year of his contract next season that will pay him $25 million. Lakers forward Carlos Boozer called Bryant “a warrior” three times in a four-minute interview. Both Boozer and Lakers forward Nick Young marveled at how Bryant shot, passed and dribbled mostly with his left hand after suffering his shoulder injury in last week’s loss in New Orleans.
“If anybody can come back, it’s Kobe,” Boozer said. “He attacks his rehab and is a monster with his work ethic. I don’t expect anything differently.”
After all, Bryant returned eight months after shattering his Achilles tendon on April, 2013. After playing in only six games last season because of a fractured left knee, Bryant opened the first month of the 2014-15 season leading the NBA in scoring. This season, Bryant played effective enough to surpass Michael Jordan for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, posted a season-high 44 points against Golden State and recorded a career-high 17 assists against Cleveland. Boozer gushed about Bryant’s “incredible basketball IQ,” his willingness to teach and his ability to run through suicides in training camp without any issues.
“Everything Kobe sees is from a championship level,” Boozer said. :That’s why we’re tuned into him. He had a great year and came out aggressive to start. Then, he started trusting us more and getting us involved. The thing about Kobe is he can play different styles. He can score 81 points or he can have 17 assists. That’s the great thing about his game. He can adjust and is that good, especially at this level.”
Yet, Bryant’s 2014-15 season featured some ugly moments.
His 22.3 points per game average came on a career-low 37.3 percent shooting. He went 8-of-30 against Sacramento. Bryant shot 1-of-14 against San Antonio. His 39-point performance against Phoenix came on 37 shots. After averaging 35.4 minutes per contest through the Lakers’ first 27 games, Scott then rested him in eight of the last 16 games and most practices and shootarounds. Bryant also usually played between 30-32 minutes a night.
Scott reported Bryant complained about shoulder pain about a month-and-half ago before quickly dismissing it. But Bryant aggravated his right shoulder after throwing down a base-line dunk in last week’s loss in New Orleans. When Bryant reentered the game late in the fourth quarter, he shot, passed and dribbled with mostly his left hand.
“From the game in New Orleans, I knew something was wrong with him,” Young said of Bryant. “He was doing everything with his left hand, shooting shots and fadeaways. At the same time, I thought it was Kobe being Kobe. But I didn’t think he would have a tear.”
Yet, Scott reported that Bryant remained in high spirits when they spoke Monday morning.
“He sounded good. I probably sounded worse than he did.,” Scott said. “We all know how tough he is and he’s a trooper.”
The Lakers (12-33) enter Tuesday’s game against the Washington Wizards (30-15) at Staples Center with a season-worst eight-game losing streak. The Lakers went 2-8 without Bryant in the lineup, but the Lakers also went only 10-25 with their star player on the floor.
How does the Lakers replace Bryant’s scoring load?
Said Young: “Pretty much just give me the ball and get out the way.”
Too bad Young has shot 32.2 percent in the last month. He played only nine minutes in Sunday’s loss to Houston because of Scott’s frustration with his body language and effort. Young also suffered a moderately sprained right ankle in Monday’s practice that leaves him listed as questionable for Tuesday’s game against Washington.
How does the Lakers replace Bryant’s leadership void?
“I have no idea. That’s a good question,” Scott said. “We got 12 other guys. As team leaders, guys on that floor have to figure that out. I can’t point at a guy and say he’s going to be the leader. They have to respect his work ethic and the way he plays.”
Scott then guessed that responsibility will fall on 12-year veteran Carlos Boozer, who said he’s “already been leading.” He has averaged 12.3 points on 52.6 percent shooting and seven rebounds. The Lakers have credited Boozer for performing through a demoted bench role despite Boozer openly disagreeing with losing his starting position last 20 games into the season. But the Lakers have often become frustrated with Boozer’s defensive weaknesses.
How do the Lakers play without Bryant?
In the past two games, Scott went with a starting lineup that featured rookie Jordan Clarkson (point guard), Wayne Ellington (shooting guard), second-year player Ryan Kelly (small forward), Jordan Hill (power forward) and third-year player Robert Sacre (center). It seems like the Lakers have turned more into a development stage than worrying about bottom-line results amid their recent two losses. Scott also no longer needs to monitor Bryant’s playing status for each game.
“It doesn’t clarify anything other than we have a lot of people playing,” Scott said. “We have to find the right pieces to play. As far as that goes, I’d rather have him half the time than none of the time.”
Yet, amid all the unanswered questions about both the Lakers, the franchise remains insistent on one thing surrounding Bryant.
“He still has that hunger and competitive nature,” Scott said, “to come out and prove it again.”