Another day, another proclamation that an injury-stricken former MVP guard is in proper working order and prepared to play basketball. First, it was Chicago Bulls point man Derrick Rose who, seven months after season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus, is reportedly ready to go "if the season started tomorrow." (Which, of course, it doesn't, but still: neat!) Now, it's Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant who's saying he's in tip-top condition and eager to return after a season-ending left knee fracture back in December.
The Black Mamba brought us up to speed on his physical condition during a brief interview in Brazil, where Bean's taking in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, disagreeing with U.S. men's national soccer team manager Jurgen Klinsmann's assessment of the $48.5 million contract extension, and (potentially) inspiring Clint Dempsey's equipment choices. The relevant section starts at the 29-second mark:
"How is your knee? Are you prepared for next season?" the interviewer asks.
"Oh, yeah. I'm 100 percent," Bryant replies. "One hundred percent."
Bryant also briefly discussed the situation in which his Lakers find themselves after a miserable 2013-14 season in which an injury-ravaged and talent-deficient group stumbled to a 27-55 mark, the worst finish since the franchise moved to California from Minneapolis in 1960. The awful campaign precipitated Mike D'Antoni's resignation, leaving the Lakers in the market for a new head coach, holding the No. 7 pick in next Thursday's 2014 NBA draft and facing a very uncertain future.
"It's a very, very tough season, but you know, what's life without a few challenges?" said a smiling Bryant. "You know, you've got to have a few challenges. This summer, I'm training really hard. The organization's working really hard to make sure we have a great team."
One thing's for sure: There's an awful lot of work to be done.
Eight players from last year's team — Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman, Jodie Meeks, MarShon Brooks, Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson — become unrestricted free agents this summer. Nick Young plans to decline his $1.23 million player option to join them in free agency. The Lakers have until June 30 to decide to extend qualifying offers for next season to trade-deadline acquisition Kent Bazemore and 2013 second-round pick Ryan Kelly; if L.A. declines, they'll become free agents, too. Pleasant surprise reclamation-project point guard Kendall Marshall's 2014-15 deal is unguaranteed, too.
That leaves the 35-year-old Bryant, coming off two devastating leg injuries in less than a year, 40-year-old point guard Steve Nash, who's in a very similar situation, and reserve center Robert Sacre as the lone locked-in members of the 2014-15 Lakers at the moment. In a sense, Bryant realizes, both he and the franchise are starting over.
"We only have three players from last year's team signed to contracts right now, including me," he said. "We don't have a coach. So it's literally like starting from scratch. It's not really what we have to do better than we did last year, it's that we have to build the right team to win next season."
Doing so won't be easy, especially in a brutal Western Conference paced by the reigning NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. The West also featured a team 23 wins better than last year's Lakers (the upstart Phoenix Suns) that missed out on postseason play. In news that will surprise precisely nobody, though, a version of Kobe Bryant who believes that he is 100 percent healthy feels like his team will have a chance to turn some heads.
"It's the best time, when people count you out," he said.
If that's the case, then this certainly is the best of times for Kobe and the broken-down Lakers. If the Hall of Fame scorer isn't still 100 percent come the fall, though, it could quickly become another year chock full of the worst of times.
Hat-tip to Sekou Smith of NBA.com's Hang Time blog.
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