COMMENTARY | The big news from the Los Angeles Lakers this week is that All-Star, five-time champ and future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant returned to practice for the first time after recovering from his torn Achilles tendon.
It's unclear exactly when he'll play his first game, but if he's healthy enough to practice then his return to game action is imminent. He's already experiencing a little soreness after his first two practices, but that's being called "expected."
At full health, even after 17 years of playing, Kobe is still one of the few very best players in the game. He is beloved the world over. And hated almost equally. But that sometimes happens when you're so good for so long.
An NBA player's legs are vital to his athleticism and a torn Achilles tendon could easily mean the end of a player's career. Overall, whether a player makes it back seems like a 50-50 proposition. Look no further than brothers Gerald Wilkens and Dominique Wilkens.
Dominique tore his Achilles and was back playing at an All-Star level after nine months. Gerald took more than a year to recover and never was quite the same player.
Isiah Thomas also tore his Achilles and it ended his career, but he was already planning on retiring a month later anyway, so it's unclear whether he could have made it back. Besides, he needed to get started on sabotaging the New York Knicks franchise.
So, with Kobe's return upon us, here are a few things you can expect:
Returning Is the Key
Over the last 20 years in the NBA, there have been a number of Achilles blowouts and it appears that the real hurdle is just making it back. If the player is able to use his legs -- even with slightly diminished function -- they're usually able to return at almost exactly their previous level of production.
It's a little unnerving that Kobe is coming back faster than would be expected from a normal player, but he's a fierce competitor and nothing short of amputation is going to keep him off the basketball court. Also, one has to figure that medical advancements in the last two decades have helped him along.
All-Star Productivity, but Different
When Dominique came back from his injury, it took him a couple months to get back into the groove, but, once he did, there was really no difference statistically. With the one exception that Dominique started taking more 3-pointers -- almost double his career average actually.
Maybe that means he had become reluctant to drive to the basket or maybe he'd lost some of the explosiveness of his first step. Kobe had already started moving away from that style of play, but I think we're going to see even more of outside shots. The problem, of course, is that Kobe isn't actually a very good 3-point shooter.
This is one of the things that non-Lakers fans (and even some Lakers fans) get the most worked up about with Kobe. And, of course, it's true. But it's such a ridiculous assertion. Kobe is the best player on the team and the best player on a basketball team takes the most shots.
This isn't like baseball where everyone gets a relatively equal number of offensive opportunities. The best running back on a football team gets the most carries. The best wing on a hockey team gets the most shots on goal. And the best soccer guy on a soccer squad gets the most awards for "faking being tripped."
While I feel very confident that Kobe will return to almost the same productivity, I hope that it will be with less minutes. When Wilkens came back, he averaged two minutes less per game. That doesn't seem like much, but at that level of performance that could be the difference in Kobe fully recovering.
Coach Mike D'Antoni actually shoulders some of the blame for the injury in the first place. He was playing Kobe for huge minutes as the team was pushing for the playoffs -- more minutes than someone with Kobe's mileage should be doing. It's not like Kobe was going to ask to come out. Like a baseball manager deciding when a pitcher needs to come out of the game, D'Antoni should have insisted.
The Hate Machines Return with Him
Returning from injury will help make Kobe a more sympathetic figure. However, one of the things that non-Lakers fans enjoy doing more than almost everything is hating Kobe Bryant. Sure, LeBron James going to Miami helped ease Kobe's onslaught over the last few years, but they're all still out there -- waiting for his return so they can spew their venom.
And, of course, people hate him. He's "a ball hog" and "a five-time champ" and "a lot better at basketball than anyone their team has ever had." Kobe has been almost single-handedly responsible for shattering the hopes and dreams of NBA fans from all over the country.
And when he comes back, folks better watch out. Because there's still plenty of basketball left in Kobe Bryant, and there are plenty of hopes and dreams yet to be crushed.
Jed Rigney is a Los Angeles-based award-winning filmmaker who also fancies himself a sportswriter. You can find him on Twitter @JedRigney.
- Sports & Recreation
- Kobe Bryant
- Los Angeles Lakers
- torn Achilles tendon