Whatever the permutation, the Los Angeles Lakers always seemed to rank amongst the NBA’s top squads when it comes to fielding unique outfits that we’re at a loss with when it comes to predicting how a season will turn out. There is a solid possibility that Carlos Boozer could return to offensive form with Los Angeles next season, that rookie Julius Randle could show signs of acting like the next Lamar Odom, Linsanity could rise again in El Lay, and gunner Nick Young could come into his own and recognize that there are other aspects to the game of NBA basketball besides chuckin’ away. New coach Byron Scott, even, could make a difference with his vocal defensive bluster and Princeton-y offense.
Once again, though, the team’s fortunes will come down to the relative health of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. Two players that were drafted into the NBA before Bill Clinton was even elected to a second term as president, and two Lakers that missed a combined 143 games in 2013-14 with an assortment of injuries that are usually rare to NBA players. Injuries that could probably be pegged on the duo’s massive workload as the leader for a series of championship contenders dating back a decade and a half.
Longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti sat down with Mike Trudell of the Lakers’ official website last week to give a reasonably positive update and the status of the two, and while it might not sign off on allowing us to predict that the duo will return to MVP form, things are at least looking better than they did last summer. Or fall. Or winter. Or spring.
From Trudell’s interview, which is a must-read beyond the Kobe and Nash discussions:
MT: Kobe is of course coming off the left Achilles tear on April 12, 2013, and the small knee fracture on Dec. 17, 2013, both of which have completely healed. Bryant said at his camp in Santa Barbara that he’s fully healthy and weighs 215 pounds, his typical playing weight in January. It’s pretty tough, for me at least having been around him since 2008, to bet against him.
Vitti: You’d be crazy to bet against him.
Kobe is doing everything right.
You said something about not wanting to bet against him, but I would like you to do that, publicly. Not that he needs any more motivation. Kobe Bryant is a brilliant basketball player. Kobe Bryant is a great athlete, but there were actually players that were more athletic than Kobe. So why him? It's in his mind and his heart and soul. He just has something about him that most people don't. No matter what you think of Kobe Bryant, he's extremely athletic, extremely talented, works harder than anyone else, is tough as nails and intellectually brilliant. You can't take those five things away from him. When you put them all together, you end up with a very, very successful person. Now, it comes with ‘stuff,’ and he'll be the first one to admit it, but wouldn't you rather have a guy that has those five things and deal with the ‘stuff’ than have a guy that doesn't have any ‘stuff’ but you’re trying to instill one of those five things in him. I'll take the dude with the five things.
The dude also has five rings. I’ll take that guy, too.
Even with the motivation, the proper rehabilitation, and Kobe’s drive already in place, there is still the nagging issue of his recovery from two major injuries, ones that Vitti credits to perhaps being the result of “the attrition of his whole life playing basketball.”
MT: How possible is it that Bryant will keep his body healthy for the 2014-15 season?
Vitti: I have 100 percent confidence that he'll be healthy because of the way he handles his body and the style of play that we'll compete at. We can't play at a frenetic pace. We can push the ball when it's there, and we can certainly let Kobe create out of the post with his back to the basket at this stage of his career…
The cynic can point to the (wrong) idea that, in a lot of ways Bryant’s return would put Vitti’s reputation on the line, but Vitti’s reputation was already etched in stone a long time ago, and he’s always been a straight-shooter. You have to kiss a lot of frogs in Hollywood, but Gary Vitti didn’t get this far for this long with the Lakers by telling people what they want to hear.
MT: Finally, Gary, what can you expect from Steve Nash this season? He played only 15 games in 2013-14, battling the nerve issues that resulted from his broken leg in the second game of the 2012-13 season.
Vitti: We’re not sure. When nerves are involved, they either get better really quickly, or they take a long, long period of time. There’s usually nothing in between. We're in that really long period now. He'll be coming back to Los Angeles this week, and all my conversations with him are that he has absolutely no neural issue at this point. He's playing full-tilt, unrestricted soccer. He's doing all the corrective injury and performance exercises he's supposed to be doing, and right now he's 100 percent healthy.
Now, how does that translate into putting on an NBA uniform and getting out there with these guys in a point guard dominated league on hardwood, not a grass soccer field. I don't think anybody knows, and nobody wants to know more than Steve. He really wants to play, and he's committed himself to do whatever it is to play. If he can't, we'll have to address that when the time comes.
MT: But things do look better today?
Vitti: Right now things look better on July 31, 2014, than they did July 31, 2013. He was still having nerve issues last July.
This whole mess is tricky for various financial, Western Conference, and teammate-related conundrums, but the messiest part of this whole hoped-for return to health comes in the form of just how unique Nash and Bryant are as players, and how unique their injuries are.
Bryant tore his Achilles in April 2013, an injury that has befallen several NBA stars before, but his leg fracture in the days following his return to action last season is just about unprecedented in recent NBA history. Players just don’t break legs or even ankles unless something severe and gruesome happens – (don’t) see Paul George, Jay Williams, Shaun Livingston or Shavlik Randolph – and yet Nash and Bryant have endured two leg fractures in consecutive years.
Nash’s fracture led to crippling nerve pain, which limited his comeback attempts in 2012-13 and last season, though he perpetually tried. Bryant’s fracture set him out for all of last season as the Lakers limped to a 27-win season and the bottom spot in the Pacific Division.
As such, Bryant will have played just six games of NBA basketball in 18 1/2 months of time between his Achilles injury and the start of 2014-15, and Nash just 17 contests during that same span. The optimist will point to the idea that all that time off might have extended the two’s careers.
The pessimist? They’ll just rattle off the litany of injuries: Achilles tear, leg fractures, nerve damage.
Vitti is a qualified and learned optimist, and for good reason. He’s been present for the rehabilitation process, and he knows Kobe Bryant probably better than anyone in the NBA. If Bryant has been “doing everything right” and Nash has “no neural issues at all” as opposed to this time last year, then it’s time to take the man at his word.
Good for Nash, Bryant and Vitti. Good for the Lakers, and good for all of us.
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