Kobe Bryant is despised here in Boston because he is a Los Angeles Laker and he lived at the free throw line in the fourth quarter of that painful Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, but the NBA is a better and more entertaining product when he is healthy and scoring buckets.
Bryant returned from a torn left Achilles’ tendon for a total of six games before fracturing his left kneecap in a collision with former Celtic Tony Allen on Dec. 17. Bryant remained quiet for eight days but finally broke his silence on Christmas Day, once again addressing a potential long-term injury.
Considered one of the league’s toughest and sturdiest players for 16 years, Bryant has been relegated to the sidelines and rehabilitation for much of the past eight months.
Based on the two injuries, some NBA observers have suggested he sit out the remainder of the season to allow his body to completely heal so he can be prepared for the final two seasons of his contract.
Bryant, as expected, dismissed that notion and plans to return this season, despite the Lakers being out of the playoff picture in the Western Conference and playing with a patchwork lineup filled with journeymen.
This is no surprise. Bryant is not going to miss an opportunity to play basketball, despite how meaningless the games may be. A few years ago, Bryant was trying to prove he wasn’t being eclipsed by LeBron James as the league’s most talented player.
And when James did become the game’s premier player, Bryant was relegated to proving he was still in his prime.
Following the first major injury of his career, Bryant was asked to prove he is capable of even approaching his previous form.
“It’s funny hearing all the comments and things like that. It can’t help but enhance my focus more,” he said before the Lakers lost to the Heat on Christmas Day.
“Obviously it’s not something I wanted to have happen, but there’s nothing you can do about it. From that standpoint, you have to look at an injury for exactly what it is, which is something that’s going to heal, and be as strong as it ever was.
“I was fortunate it wasn’t a meniscus or anything else. There’s nothing I really have to do from a recovery standpoint other than letting the bones heal and letting the fracture heal. You kind of just have to look at the injury in a vacuum.”
Bryant averaged just 13.8 points in his six games, shooting 42.5 percent and committing a whopping 5.7 turnovers per game. Bryant was 3 for 16 from the 3-point line and attempted eight fewer shots per game than the previous season.
There was apprehension in Bryant’s game, but he strangely said the six-game stint was a positive experience.
“Obviously, you have the negative side of the injury, but aside from that, I felt like I had some really good questions answered in terms of what I can do on a basketball floor,” he said. “It was kind of like you’re experimenting from game to game and measuring things and trying to figure things out. I felt pretty good about that, which was the biggest question mark.
“The knee is not really a concern to me. The fracture will heal, but the biggest question mark was how would my Achilles’ respond to my game, and I felt pretty good about that.”
The only player to ever come back strong from a torn Achilles’ tendon is Dominique Wilkins in 1991-92, but Wilkins was 32 years old and played another seven seasons.
Bryant is 35, has already played 17 seasons in the NBA (nearly half of his life), and has a history of knee troubles. His game was so predicated on his physical prowess, the question now becomes whether Bryant can remain one of the league’s premier players from the ground level.
“I felt like I learned that I pretty much could do everything I could before, particularly in the last game [against Memphis],” he said.
“The biggest part of my game in the last two or three years has always been getting to a space on the floor, being able to elevate and shoot pull-up jump shots, and getting into the paint. It was a great test going up against Tony Allen, who in my opinion has been the guy who’s defended me the best individually since I got into the league. [It was my] fourth game in five nights and to be able to go up against him, and respond to that challenge, I feel really good about it.”
Bryant has vowed to return, and he’s been a man of his word throughout his career. Meanwhile, watching the Lakers fight to remain competitive is difficult, as they throw out a plethora of journeymen — many of them major disappointments at their previous stops — while Bryant sits and watches in street clothes from the sideline.
The NBA is healthier when Bryant is healthy.
“The Achilles’ felt fine. It was strong. From getting out on the court from that, it was a matter of the rest of the body catching up,” Bryant said. “Also, like I said before, there was some natural tentativeness, and what you can and what you can’t do, so you kind of just go down the list and try to improve from game to game.
“My spirits are fine. I feel more locked in now than I have been my entire career because of it. The spirit is fine, the focus is great, and we’re just going to have to see what happens when I come back.”
Williams glad he took one-and-done route
Shawne Williams of the Lakers was the first player drafted under the NBA’s one-and-done policy in 2006, and he said he doesn’t regret his decision to leave the University of Memphis after one season, despite myriad troubles and playing for five teams.
Williams said he should have handled the situation more maturely, but staying in college for additional years could only have resulted in increased scrutiny by scouts.
“If you averaged 13 or 14 [points per game], the pressure automatically goes up,” he said. “They want you to average 18 the next year, and then the next year they want you to average 21, and then the next year they want you to average [more], but it’s not that easy in college. College ball is the toughest ball to me because everybody plays hard, 94 feet, no defensive [three-second call] and centers can sit in the paint all day, so it’s hard.”
Williams said he has no regrets about leaving school, comparing a high-level college program to the NBA.
“College is the same as the NBA, you’ve just got more money in the NBA and more downtime,” he said. “In college, coaches kind of micromanage your time — early-morning workouts, early-morning breakfasts, got to have lunch together and dinner together. In the league, it’s like, let’s practice and after practice you’re done and it’s, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ That’s the only difference, but I feel like you have to grow up one way or another.
“I’d rather grow up in the NBA than wait around in college and not growing up when you still have people that are kind of coddling you a little bit.”
The NBA is not a league for development. Many young players have been told what to work on to improve and have been waived or traded when the ascension didn’t occur.
“Some organizations you go in, they have the structure where they want you to work and put the coaches in place [to help you],” said Williams, who signed a one-year, non-guaranteed deal with the Lakers in the offseason. “Some coaches, they know you are a pro and you’ve got to do your job and you’ve got to get better over the summer. It ain’t the time to work on it during the season, it’s time to work on it in the summer.”
The NBA is considering extending the limit of years in college before turning pro to two, but the players’ union would have to approve the change.
“I feel like they already took away from the high school kids and I feel like if you are worthy of getting picked out of 60 picks, then that’s a great accomplishment,” Williams said. “They shouldn’t hold people back. I think most college players have big dominant years and the next year it’s the same. It’s like the NBA. [College teams] get a scouting report, they know what you do.
“[Kentucky coach John] Calipari said it best: You’ve got to try to hide your weaknesses because the one thing about the NBA personnel and scouts, they take their jobs very seriously. They evaluate you over four years and they see if you stay the same or if you grow, and it ends up hurting the college kid.”
There are plenty of early-entry draftees floating around the league, looking for an opportunity. In Philadelphia, Tony Wroten has been discovered following an empty first season with the Memphis Grizzlies. Guaranteed contracts are not convincing NBA teams to hold on to those younger players living only on potential. Patience is shorter than in the past.
“It’s a revolving door; this is not a stuck-in-cement league,” said Williams. “Everybody is trying to look to get better, so nowadays a lot of people bounce around, not like the 1990s when teams used to be together for seven or eight years. It’s a thin line of patience, and everyone wants to win right now.
“I feel like it’s a totally different structure in the league than when I came out. You were coming out on guaranteed, four-year deals; you had four years to get yourself together. Now it’s not like that. You’ve got to get yourself together quick or come in ready.”
Injury bug continues to claim star players
The NBA has been besieged with injuries this season, more than even in the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12. On Friday, the Thunder quietly announced that point guard Russell Westbrook underwent arthroscopic surgery on the same knee that he had two previous procedures on in the past six months.
“Russell has been playing pain-free, but recently had experienced increased swelling. After consultation and consideration by his surgeon in Los Angeles, a plan was established to monitor the swelling that included a series of scheduled MRIs,” general manager Sam Presti said. “On the most recent MRI it was determined by the surgeon that there was an area of concern that had not previously existed, nor was detectable in the previous procedures, and it was necessary to evaluate Russell further. The consulting physician determined that arthroscopic surgery was necessary to address the swelling that was taking place. We know that Russell’s work ethic and commitment will help him return to the level of play that we have all come to appreciate.”
Westbrook looked flawless in notching a triple-double in the Christmas Day win over the Knicks. His absence means more playing time for ex-Boston College standout ReggieJackson, who flourished in Westbrook’s absence during last season’s playoffs and during the early stages of this season.
Portland, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio are currently fighting for the top spot in the Western Conference, while the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston, Phoenix, Golden State, and Dallas are in the second tier. Westbrook’s absence could cause the Thunder to drop in the standings, and there is additional concern about whether this knee injury is chronic.
Meanwhile, a few hours after the Westbrook injury was announced, the Atlanta Hawks revealed that center Al Horford, arguably their best player, would miss extended time with a torn right pectoral muscle, sustained in a double-overtime win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Horford missed all but 11 games of the lockout season with a torn left pectoral muscle.
And how does this affect the Celtics? They have the rights to the lower of the first-round picks between the Nets and Hawks, and both teams have just lost their best players to long-term injuries. Brook Lopez will miss the season with a broken bone in his right foot, sustained in the Dec. 22 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
So, Brooklyn and Atlanta will be shorthanded for the remainder of the regular season, which most likely will affect their draft status and ensure the Celtics get a quality pick in what is expected to be the best draft class since 2003. Westbrook, Horford and Lopez join Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Marc Gasol, RajonRondo, and Danilo Gallinari as players who have sustained, or are recovering from, significant injuries this season.
Paul Pierce perhaps exemplified his frustrations in Brooklyn with his clothesline of Indiana’s George Hill during Monday’s loss to the Pacers. Not only did Pierce receive a Flagrant 2 foul and an automatic ejection, but also a $15,000 fine. Pierce was also scoreless for the evening, his first zero-point game since 1999, when he was with the Celtics. It’s been a nightmarish season for Pierce, who is a free agent at season’s end and could be on the trade market if the Nets don’t dramatically improve. The Clippers are in need of a productive small forward as the experiment with Jared Dudley has been uneven at best . . . The Bobcats could be in the market for small forward help after backup Jeffery Taylor was felled by a torn Achilles’ tendon. Starter Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is already out with a broken hand, leaving the improved Bobcats to use journeyman Chris Douglas-Roberts and Ben Gordon at the position . . . Former NBA guard Bobby Brown scored 74 points in a Chinese Basketball Association game last week and will be available to clubs when the CBA season ends in March. Brown has always been a high-scoring, dynamic guard but has been unable to stick with an NBA team. The lack of backup point guards in the league should create a market for Brown. Speaking of backup point guards, D.J. Augustin is flourishing with the opportunity he was given by the Bulls after being dumped by Toronto following the Rudy Gay trade. He’s averaging 10.4 points and 6.3 assists in seven games since joining the club. He is averaging 30.7 minutes. . . . The Magic are trying to work out a contract settlement with Hedo Turkoglu, who has no future with the organization and is in the final year of his deal that pays him $12 million but only $6 million guaranteed if he is waived by Jan. 10. The Magic will certainly dump Turkoglu — one of their top players from the team that defeated the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals and reached the 2009 Finals — but perhaps there could be a deal with a contending team before that Jan. 10 deadline. How much does Turkoglu have left? . . . The Celtics don’t have any players on their roster on non-guaranteed contracts, so there will be no concern about players being waived. The club does, however, have an open roster spot and perhaps enough salary cap space to absorb a 10-day contract if needed. Players can be signed to 10-day contracts after Jan. 10. The Celtics are so close to the luxury tax, they did not want to sign even a minimum contract for fear of exceeding the tax line. A 10-day contract could be a different story.