With a bad break, it all changes for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers
Three weeks ago, the Los Angeles Lakers earmarked $48.5 million for a new, two-year contract extension to let the world know that Kobe Bryant was both their present and future. What was illogical then seems painfully so now, as the 35-year-old guard not only faces an uphill climb in overcoming the limitations of his once-ruptured Achilles’, but will now be tasked with slowly rehabilitating an injured knee on the same leg. Bryant lost his footing in the third quarter of a game against the Grizzlies on Tuesday, resulting in a hyperextension and tibial plateau fracture — an injury that carries with it a six-week timeline for recovery.
To those who believe Bryant to be above such conventional timetables – as if his every fiber were fundamentally stronger than that of a mere human — let this be a harrowing, unfortunate lesson. No one dares doubt Bryant’s will nor his commitment to being the best basketball player possible. But he is still bound by basic physical limits, ones that in this case impede not only his ability to reclaim previous highs, but also to push himself as much as he’d like.
Therein lies the danger with Bryant in this luckless stage of his career. One does not power through a torn Achilles’ tendon. It’s a career-altering injury to be treated with the utmost consideration, as it taxes not only the immediate area of the tear but all of the lower body and then some. Players who suffered the same tear more than five years ago still bear its trademark: A noticeable lack of muscle in the leg in question, which comes with all kinds of physical ramifications. It takes far less than the tear of a major tendon to throw the body out of alignment, and in the case of a high-functioning athlete like Bryant, compensation at other points and joints seemed somewhat inevitable.
It speaks volumes about the friction between Bryant’s state and mentality that, upon tweaking his left knee, he looked to persevere. He was playing in just his sixth game back in an early return after suffering an absolutely brutal injury, yet Bryant angled to get back into the game as soon as possible to help his team win. Admirable though that may be, Bryant wasn’t exactly in a position to force the issue. He hasn’t looked quite right physically since his return to the NBA floor, and yet he threw caution to the wind in playing six-and-a-half minutes on a hyperextended knee atop a shaky ankle. There’s resilience and then there’s heedlessness.
The problem isn’t the fracture itself so much as what it suggests. For months Bryant lost bone and muscle mass while keeping weight off his torn Achilles’, only to then begin ramping up his workouts to get back into playing shape. Perhaps he came back too soon, or perhaps Bryant and the Lakers’ team doctors took every precaution necessary. Regardless, he plunged headfirst into a ball-dominant workload of 30 minutes per game, and on the fourth game in five nights felt his left knee give out. Hyperextension is as apt a metaphor as a malady; the legend renowned for pushing himself beyond physical limits may have gone a bit too hard, too fast, and now will likely sit out six weeks at the least as he gives a critical joint the necessary time to heal.
This is exactly what the Lakers signed up for in extending Bryant’s contract for another two seasons after this one, all without so much as waiting for Kobe to make his initial return. He worked his way back once, and will do so again. But every development from this point on comes back to that torn Achilles’ tendon, which changed the entire course of Bryant’s career when it snapped back in April. Now, even a six-week, non-surgical recovery from an entirely separate knee injury becomes a bit more complicated, as Bryant won’t have an opportunity in the interim to reinforce his weakened left leg. If he attempts to come back too soon, he risks lingering, arthritic implications for his knee. Even if he waits for the fracture to fully heal, Bryant will again have to test his Achilles’ and his left leg in general, now asterisked with two points of structural weakness.
Bryant is aging and ailing in a way that affects his entire physical system, and the entire Lakers ecosystem beyond that. He shouldn’t be written off, though with injuries such as these comes deserved doubt in Bryant’s ability to justify the $48.5 million in salary and cap room he’ll pull over the next two seasons at the Lakers’ own request. His absence will require short-term strategic shifts. His fracture could change the trajectory of the Lakers’ season. And ultimately, the lingering effects of his Achilles’ tear will shape Lakers teams to come as Kobe’s limitations compound. The walls are closing in, but it remains to be seen if Bryant — who is blinded by drive — or the Lakers — who are blinded by devotion — will stop to take notice.