Court Vision: Reactions to Kobe's return
Nearly eight months after tearing his Achilles tendon, Kobe Bryant made his long-awaited return on Sunday. The results were unspectacular: Bryant scored just nine points on 2-of-9 shooting in 29 minutes, and notched eight rebounds, four assists, and eight turnovers. Below is a sampling of reaction to Kobe's performance, whether from a big-picture lens or an analytical microscope.
• Bryant's return to the court was a production. There was a trailer released on Friday to tease fans and build hype. Bryant's pregame introduction warranted its own music cue, with the loved-and-hated Bryant stalking stoically through a crowd of his high-fiving teammates to John Williams' "Imperial March." NBA TV scheduled for the occasion, fans flooded into STAPLES Center, and an otherwise unremarkable matchup against the Raptors became an event.
There aren't many NBA players who could pull off this kind of spectacle, nor many with such explicit power to bang out the final chapter of their playing career on their own terms. But Kobe is -- and has long been -- a unique case. At TrueHoop, Justin Verrier examines the experience of Bryant's return as a lens for what's to come:
This was a hero’s welcome. This was exactly the environment Bryant had taken great care to craft for the beginning of his end.
We all want to choose the way we go out, to decide the last image the world will have of us. No one desires to be remembered as sickly, clinging to the last threads of the person we used to be. Athletes spend decades crafting their legacies -- putting up all of those shots, lifting all of those weights -- and to go out on top, instead of with a whimper, well, that’s something special. In fact, clinical psychology studies have shown that when we think about experiences, we are moreinfluenced by how the experience ends than by the experience as a whole.
Finishing his career with a title, like John Elway and others, appears unlikely for Bryant at this point; as long as he is the best player on the Lakers, Kobe will also be the best reason for another, much-needed superstar not to play for the Lakers. But by signing a two-year extension with the only franchise he has ever known, at a price that will make him the highest-paid player in the NBA over the length of the agreement, Bryant has ensured that, for the next two-plus years, the Lakers will be built in his image, just like they were when he was at his best. He has procured the best possible lighting for his grand finale.
• Portland's Damian Lillard did his part to fuel the Kobe hype machine:
• No matter how much Bryant struggled in his first game back, Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report reminds us that that even a rough starting point in a positive thing. No one was more critical of his own performance than Bryant himself, but Kobe ripped off every bit of self-criticism with a smile -- the mark of a man who "couldn’t hide the fact that he was damn happy to be there."
• More on Bryant's criticism of his own debut here.
• Bryant's season debut earned a C+ grade from Brett Pollakoff of ProBasketballTalk, a few marks better than the "F" Bryant gave himself.
• Darius Soriano captured the limits of Bryant's one-on-one play in his first game back at Forum Blue and Gold:
In terms of his ability to work off the dribble in isolation, I thought we got a mixed bag and come away with no definitive answer as to what he’s capable of doing at this point. On more than one occasion he was able to get a step on his man to gain an advantage off the dribble. That was countered, however, by other plays where he looked a step slow and not able to beat that initial layer of defensive pressure. As for his shot, it looked a bit flat and overall his legs didn’t yet seem game ready. There were not a lot of quick pull ups or explosive movements when working off the dribble, but his footwork looked solid and he looked very comfortable working out of the triple threat anywhere on the court.
• In terms of work ethic and production over the course of an extended career, Bryant has set an almost impossible standard. Yet now, with the weight of a career falling on his surgically-repaired Achilles, Bryant is left to measure up with his own incredible benchmarks. From J.A. Adande of ESPN.com:
There's another way this will be a new experience for Bryant: for the first time we'll be judging him within the context of himself. He might find it liberating. Even though he came to feel burdened by the constant, self-induced comparisons to Michael Jordan, Bryant also realized it was a sign he was doing something right. And trust me, he considers one of the greatest testimonies to his career that he was the constant in an ever-evolving series of NBA debates: Kobe vs. Vince, Kobe vs. T-Mac, Kobe vs. Iverson, Kobe vs. LeBron.
Now it's Kobe vs. Kobe. The 2013-14, post-Achilles version against the player who scored 31,617 points in his first 17 seasons. In some ways it can be tougher than going one-on-one against someone else. For example, the 2012-13 season didn't raise many eyebrows or drop jaws, simply because it didn't match his peak performances. At age 34, when decline should have been evident, he put up a scoring average of 27.3 points that bested nine of his previous 16 seasons, and an assists average of 6.0 that matched his career high. Kobe took great pride in it, because he knew how hard he had to work to maintain his standards while his body grew older. The effort required was reaching the point that he wondered if he could continue to do so, or even if he wanted to. Then he tore the Achilles, and had a fresh challenge to motivate him.
• Bryant detailed the mental gymnastics of his rehab to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
"As tough as ever to find that balance of where my mind needed to be. As soon as the injury happened, I had doubts whether this night would ever happen. And then, I kicked it into the full gear and fought myself to not think about the end result – just think about every single day of work it would take for me to get back again."
Bryant's mind remains fascinating. Where most human beings would look ahead in their recovery and past their immediate trials, Bryant seems to have devoted himself to the rigors of his day-to-day work without as much regard for the prize of his return.
• The Bryant mythology projects Kobe as more demigod than mere mortal, unaffected by pain and injury in a way that other players might be. But SI.com's Lee Jenkins drew a clear line between Kobe as a player and Kobe as an icon, one even Bryant himself acknowledges:
Bryant's acolytes may have expected more Sunday, conditioned by his inhuman tolerance for pain and setback, but Bryant himself did not. He acknowledged that it might take all season for him to figure out how he will play in his new reality. It may take part of next season as well. Despite his social media tactics, Bryant doesn't believe he is bionic. He just believes he is creative enough to find a way, even if none appears immediately evident. Like anyone else, he will need the time, and more time to knock off the rust, and then more time to acclimate with a group that improbably went 10-9 in his absence. "He is human," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We have to understand. It's going to be a little painful at first."
• Along with Bryant's individual struggles, Amin Elhassan of ESPN.com Insider ($) saw immediate problems of fit and chemistry in the Lakers lineup:
It was painfully obvious that Bryant was extremely tentative on the floor, partially because it looked like he was moving at a measured pace, but also because he made almost too conscientious an effort to "fit in" with his teammates and not disrupt the early-season chemistry they've developed in his absence. His reluctance to shoot and over-willingness to pass made for some nice assists early, but eventually the Raptors figured it out and played him for the pass, resulting in a rash of turnovers. He didn't make matters any easier by trying to force passes in impossibly tight seams.
It was also apparent that his presence on the court frazzled the nerves of his teammates, as the team offense looked disjointed whenever he was in the lineup. It's no surprise the Lakers made all their runs when the bench players were on the floor, as they moved the ball swiftly and played with great energy.
• C.A. Clark of Silver Screen and Roll noted the same, before dismissing the long-term implications of Kobe's initially awkward presence in the same breath:
It is also unsurprising that the Lakers were at their best tonight when they were not forced to adapt to a new eco-system. The bench players all got to play the same way they have been playing, and as a result, they looked far more comfortable in their already defined roles. The team as a whole had five players in double figures, and they were all bench players. Xavier Henry was particularly strong, finishing well at the rim and hitting outside shots en route to 17 points.
So, Kobe Bryant was not particularly good in his first game back from a serious injury. His teammates were not particularly good around him, and they were pretty good when he wasn't on the court. But none of this matters. Not the loss, nor the struggle with Kobe, nor the success without him. There was always going to be an adjustment period when Kobe came back into the fold, the only question is whether that adjustment period will be long or short.
• While much of his game was very obviously rusty, Bryant's wit was on-point in his post-game press conference. One gem (via Dave McMenamin): "I think the last time I had eight months off I was still in the womb."
• Over at Ball Don't Lie, Kelly Dwyer captures the occasion in words and video, neatly fitting Bryant's first game back in a nutshell. • Above all else: Kobe Bryant may not be back, but he's back. We'll gladly settle for a living legend and an all-time NBA personality, no matter how long it takes for him to shake off the cobwebs.