Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who is recovering from a fractured lateral tibial plateau of his left knee, was examined today by team physician Dr. Steve Lombardo, who determined that Bryant’s injury has still not healed. With this diagnosis, Bryant will not return to play this season, it was announced today by the team.
“With Kobe’s injury still not healed, the amount of time he’d need to rehab and be ready to play, and the amount of time remaining in the season, we’ve simply run out of time for him to return,” said Athletic Trainer Gary Vitti. “However, Kobe will have the entire offseason to heal, rehab and prepare, and we look forward to him being 100% for the start of next season.”
“Obviously this has been a frustrating and disappointing season, but I appreciate all the support I’ve received from the Lakers and the fans, and look forward to being back and ready for the start of training camp,” said Bryant.
Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report first reported Tuesday that the Lakers were "expected to declare Bryant out for the rest of the 2013-14 season" this week. USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick confirmed those reports later Tuesday. ESPN.com's Chris Broussard confirmed the confirmation on Wednesday morning.
The announcement puts an official end to the most frustrating campaign of the 35-year-old Bryant's illustrious 18-year NBA career, one that began with Bryant on the shelf as he rehabilitated from the career-shaking torn left Achilles tendon he suffered during an April 12, 2013, game against the Golden State Warriors. It will also earn another unfortunate distinction, as related by Jeff Stotts of injury/health analytics-focused site In Street Clothes:
Kobe Bryant's 76 games missed to injury will cost the Lakers $28 million in salary, the most expensive single season bill in NBA history.— Jeff Stotts (@RotowireATC) March 12, 2014
Only Kobe & Michael Jordan have had an annual salary over $30 million. Investing that much money in a player is a gamble because of injury.— Jeff Stotts (@RotowireATC) March 12, 2014
Again Kobe's injuries carry the highest single season bill at $28 million. Insurance will help but biggest single season loss.— Jeff Stotts (@RotowireATC) March 12, 2014
After months of ups and downs in the rehab process, Bryant and the Lakers announced (with a superheroic flourish) that he'd return to the court for the Lakers' Dec. 8 home game against the Toronto Raptors. He scored nine points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished four assists, snagged three steals and turned the ball over eight times in a predictably rusty performance for a 35-year-old coming off nearly eight months away. (Also, the Lakers lost.)
Things didn't get much better for Bryant after that. Sure, he dunked, and he looked to facilitate, and he showed the basketball IQ that's made him one of the game's sharpest and most cerebral players over the course of his career. But while Bryant's mind and spirit were willing to compete, his body just couldn't hold up his end of the bargain, as he went down with a knee injury during a Dec. 17 win over the Memphis Grizzlies that two days later was diagnosed as a "fractured tibial plateau in his left knee."
After 7 1/2 months of grueling work to get back on the court, Bryant got just six games and 177 minutes worth of floor time before succumbing to another busted wheel. He averaged 13.8 points, 6.3 assists and 5.7 turnovers in 29.5 minutes per game, shooting 42.5 percent from the floor and a career-worst 18.8 percent from 3-point range.
At the time, the Lakers laid out a six-week timetable for Bryant to return from his latest setback. As mid-January approached, though, the pace of the comeback remained glacial. Over his own objections, fans voted Kobe into the starting lineup for the 2014 Western Conference All-Star team, putting the onus on the Lakers to determine whether he'd be able to return to the court in time to fulfill the fans' wishes. A week later, they announced he wouldn't, saying that a Jan. 28 examination revealed pain and swelling in the left knee that would keep him out through the All-Star break and be re-examined three weeks later, opening up a replacement roster spot filled by New Orleans Pelicans sophomore star Anthony Davis.
Those three weeks came and went, and all remained pretty quiet. The injury-plagued — well, "injury-ravaged" or "-decimated" might be better terms — Lakers kept losing, dropping down among the likes of the Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz at the bottom of the Western Conference. With Bryant's rehab "progressing slowly [and] really test[ing his] patience," the question loomed large over the balance of the Lakers' season — did it make any sense to keep the door open for a Kobe return for a few late-season games that will likely only have meaning insofar as they relate to the Lakers' ping-pong-ball positioning in the 2014 draft lottery? Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak, Mike D'Antoni and company have now answered that question in the negative.
With Bryant's present settled, attention turns, as it must, toward the future. Back in November, the Lakers ensured that Kobe would be the centerpiece of that future, signing him to a massive two-year, $48.5 million contract extension before he'd even played a single game following his Achilles recovery that will make him the highest-paid player in the NBA through the end of his age-37 season. This represented a huge risk even before Bryant suffered his knee fracture; this is why former L.A. head coach Phil Jackson said he wouldn't have given such a rich deal to one of his most famous former pupils. (We might soon find out just what kind of contracts Jackson would offer players.)
With Kobe's big new deal kicking in, the Lakers have just over $38 million in salary on the books for next season, a number that includes the non-guaranteed deal of reclamation-project point guard Kendall Marshall, Nick Young's player option, and qualifying offers for rookie Ryan Kelly and recent addition Kent Bazemore. Only Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre have fully guaranteed deals for next season, and while the Lakers could jettison the $9.7 million owed the also-unable-to-stay-on-the-court Nash using the stretch provision, they reportedly do not intend to do so. After years of trade rumors, clashes with D'Antoni, being pushed aside for Dwight Howard and then being forced to carry the bag for this lost Lakers season, it seems unlikely that free-agent-to-be Pau Gasol will continue to ply his trade in Hollywood after this spring.
The cupboard is all but bare, and even with money to spend, an infusion of new blood from what figures to be a high lottery pick, and Kobe's legendarily remarkable commitment to achievement fueling the fire, this still feels an awful lot more like the whimpering end of something great than the start of a brilliant new chapter or some glorious postscript. I'll hold out hope that I'm wrong, and that a fully rehabilitated Bryant and whoever winds up wearing purple and gold next year can make one more inspired push at relevance in an increasingly brutal Western Conference; for the time being, though, Kobe's going to have plenty of time to get back on his feet, go to class and hang with his besties. When you put it that way, it doesn't sound so bad, does it?
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