How Kobe Bryant's injury impacts his future, the Lakers and All-Star Game
Bryant suffered a torn rotator cuff in Wednesday's loss against the Pelicans. Bryant, in trademark fashion and in an incomprehensible decision by team officials, finished out the game despite being unable to shoot with his dominant hand.
On Friday, ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne reported that Bryant's injury would likely sideline him for the rest of the season. Such injuries typically carry a lengthy timetable for recovery. Spurs guard Patty Mills is the latest NBA regular to suffer a tear to his rotator cuff and returned just shy of six months.
In light of Kobe's injury, let's take a look at the immediate ramifications:
• Given that the Lakers are not a team of much consequence this season, Bryant's injury is only relevant to the rest of the league as it relates to the All-Star Game. Selection in the West was a brutal enterprise. Bryant, less deserving than some other candidates, inevitably occupied a spot in the fan-voted starting lineup. This injury allows the fans to sound their support for Bryant while also seeing another qualified guard included.
The NBA announced that Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin and Marc Gasol were voted in as starters. It also seems likely that James Harden, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard will make the cut as coach-selected reserves. That would leave just two frontcourt spots up for grabs among the original 12 spots with LaMarcus Aldridge (who is himself injured) Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki unaccounted for. Klay Thompson, Monta Ellis and Tony Parker would likely be the next guards out.
Replacing Bryant could thus go one of two ways: Either NBA commissioner Adam Silver could elect to replace Bryant directly with an unchosen guard or he could replace Bryant with the next-most qualified player at any position under the assumption that some other guard would be moved into the starting lineup. The likely beneficiaries under these two scenarios would likely be Thompson and Cousins, respectively. Though if the coaches vote Duncan or Nowitzki onto the initial roster out of career respect, then the entire selection process could get dicey.
• There will naturally be concern about where this injury leaves Bryant, as captain of the Lakers and as a walking NBA legend. A rotator cuff tear is cumbersome, though not debilitating. Bryant should be able to make a functional recovery provided that he's patient through yet another lengthy rehabilitative process. He deserves the benefit of the doubt in working his way back, but these months-long stretches of simple mobility exercises must be torture for a workout junkie like Bryant.
Beyond that, Bryant's injury is the latest reminder of relying on the stability of a player of his age and mileage. Every season that the Lakers depend on Bryant as a core piece will only be more difficult than the last. His body will fail him, and in a sense it has -- if by unrelated injuries -- in each of the past three seasons. I'd doubt very much that we've seen the last of Kobe, though upon his return the Lakers should endeavor to use him in a different light. More conservative usage, even at Bryant's dismay, could go a long way toward extending and sustaining what remains of his career.
Otherwise, the prospect of building around Bryant is so flawed it sets the franchise back significantly. Some free agents will undoubtedly listen when Kobe makes his recruiting pitch this summer, but most will see this team for what it is: One years away from a renaissance, both due to the money owed Bryant and the lack of installed talent on the roster. Weather and prestige can only go so far when the team's best player is inching further from his prime as he deals with his latest major injury.
• Insofar as the Lakers should be concerned, this season had only three priorities:
1) Ensure that the team is bad enough to retain its top-five protected draft pick, otherwise owed to Phoenix
2) Keep Bryant to a reasonable minutes total and rest him often to keep him as healthy as possible
3) Gauge and develop the younger prospects on the roster that might be worth investing in for the long term
Already No. 2 is a dud. Bryant will have his third consecutive season ended by injury, and while this ailment is disparate from the Achilles and knee injuries that ended his previous two campaigns, it's still another physical challenge for a 36-year-old in the twilight of his career. More on that later.
The Lakers, for their part, should still be bad enough to keep a top-five protected pick in this summer's draft. By rule, a finish with the worst or second-worst record in the league would guarantee Los Angeles a pick in the top four and thus ensure they keep their pick. The third-worst record would leave a four percent chance of surrendering the pick to Phoenix, and the fourth-worst record a 17 percent chance. This is where the Lakers are now, with New York, Philadelphia, and Minnesota all lesser teams by win percentage.
However, if the Lakers move up in the standings even slightly, their odds of keeping their first-round pick this season plummet. The fifth-worst record is essentially a 50-50 proposition, while the sixth-worst record would give Los Angeles just a 22 percent chance to make a first-round selection. Considering that teams like Orlando and Boston might be interested in racing to the bottom, the Lakers -- by no winning fault of their own -- might be nudged out of their protection's range.
The next few months should thus be a dramatic referendum on Bryant's miserable on/off splits for the season. No matter how you slice the data, the Lakers have performed significantly worse with Kobe on the floor. The offense has been ghastly and the defense porous. The team's numbers without Bryant are better, but could those trends really hold to the point that puts the Lakers' pick in jeopardy?