Kobe's latest injury opens door for Lakers to rebuild

Friday December 20th, 2013

Pau Gasol may be a valuable trade asset for the Lakers if they falter after Kobe Bryant's latest injury.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In the NBA, circa 2013, every day is Opposite Day. You trade a 23-year-old All-Star point guard for a rookie center with a torn ACL and are hailed as a genius. You sign players who are awful over ones who are average. You yearn to be like Milwaukee, with five wins, as opposed to Phoenix, with 14. And on the day that Kobe Bryant breaks a bone in his left knee, just six games after returning from a torn Achilles tendon in his left foot, you wonder if another severe injury will somehow accelerate the healing process. Only kindergarteners would find humor in all the contradictions.

Longtime scouts like to say that there are 10 difference makers in every draft -- usually no more and no less -- regardless of whether the class is considered fertile or fallow. But the specter of the 2014 draft, supposedly different, has turned the NBA into a fun house. Down is up, bad is good, losing is winning, and broken is whole. The Lakers, who knew in July that they couldn't contend this season, were ideally positioned to reap their first lottery pick since Andrew Bynum.

They refused, however, to jump into the fun house with everybody else. They held onto Pau Gasol and Steve Nash. They signed Chris Kaman and Nick Young. They extended Kobe Bryant, who rushed back from a torn Achilles tendon, in hopes of leading a .500 team to the playoff fringe, where they would surely be swept by Oklahoma City. The Lakers, unlike so many of their peers, couldn't tank. Bryant wouldn't let them. He is too old, too stubborn, too competitive, and he had worked too hard over the past seven months to lose 55 games.

MAHONEY: Kobe, Lakers must get accustomed to their new reality

But now he is gone for another six weeks, and it will likely take two more to get in shape. Steve Nash is out for at least another month. The Lakers don't have a single healthy ball-handler, unless you count Xavier Henry, a small forward who is averaging .6 assists in his career. The Lakers will feature Gasol, who spiked recently after a wretched start, but his emergence was mainly due to Bryant's return. Gasol has been unhappy with head coach Mike D'Antoni, as has Kaman, two of the only established players on the roster. The Lakers don't need to tank. It should happen naturally.

Bryant will rehab the knee as feverishly as he did the Achilles, in hopes the Lakers can tread water without him, which they did for the first 19 games of the season. But their lifeboat came, and then it went, and now they're waiting for it again. Despite Bryant's superhuman stamina, his body is breaking down, and that's no indictment. It's only evidence that he is a 35-year-old mortal who has cleared 50,000 minutes and is coming off an injury that has killed lesser careers. If, in six weeks, the Lakers can still sniff .500, Bryant will surely rush back again. If they're out of it, though, maybe he will finally allow the respite he needs.

Barkley says Lakers should shut Kobe down for season

No one knows for sure whether the knee problem is linked to the foot problem, and whether Bryant played too soon. No one disputes, though, that his age makes him more vulnerable. He is obviously not worth the $48 million he will be paid over the next two years, but he showed in six games that he can still be a valuable contributor in addition to a box office draw, as long as he rehabs fully and the Lakers add legitimate young talent. It was always assumed that they would find Bryant's successor through free agency, but now they have been presented with another option. Trade Gasol to a contender in need of a big man, bottom out, and potentially watch every other team go ballistic on lottery night.

Only in 2013, the year of the paradox, could you suggest something this absurd: the best thing that Kobe Bryant can do for the Lakers, and by extension himself, is take his sweet time.

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