While true details are being kept close to the chest, all signs point to Kobe Bryant beating, if not crushing, the expected timetable for his return from a torn Achilles tendon. Kobe originally sustained the injury on April 12th against the Golden State Warriors, and had surgery to repair it the day after. The latest quotable nugget of info, from the man himself, is crediting a new, innovative procedure with his seemingly superhuman recovery.
Per an interview in Shenzhen, China, Bryant said:
“The surgical procedure was different and how we did it was different, and because of that the recovery has been different. The timetable has been different. The normal timetable for recovery for an Achilles, we’ve shattered that.You know, three and a half months, I can already walk just fine, I’m lifting weights with the Achilles just fine and that’s different. So we don’t know what that timetable is going to be. It’s kind of new territory for us all.”
Trying to decipher exactly what this means is fraught with risk for those not in the medical field, although I suspect even medical professionals are curious as to what exactly what that means. More than anything, I think this whole incident has illustrated how “out of the loop” fans and media really are with regards to the inner sanctums of professional teams. Hard and fast truths are hard to come by, so sticking with what we know seems to be the safest bet: Kobe appears pleased with his progress.
His injury could actually be an important subplot for the Blazers’ season, a franchise that has a long history with Kobe. He proved a thorn in the side of the Blazers during the early 2000s, helping the Lakers to oust the Blazers in three consecutive postseasons, from 2000-2002. Recently however, Kobe has struggled mightily while on the road in Portland, going 2-11 in the Rose Garden during the past eight seasons, a stretch of otherwise success that saw him and his Lakers capture two championships and go to a third. I suspect both sides enjoy tormenting each other thoroughly.
This upcoming season could find both parties in a new position, though: fighting for playoff position at the bottom of the Western Conference. From this standpoint, Kobe’s injury is certainly worth following closely for Blazers fans. While predicting the future is a fool’s errand, conventional wisdom seems to say that the top six seeds of the Western Conference are earmarked for, in no particular order, the Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Warriors, Grizzlies and Clippers. (Bear in mind, this same conventional wisdom last offseason had the Lakers winning the West. We all know how that turned out).
Working backwards, the prevailing thoughts seem to be that the Pelicans (don’t sleep on them), Suns, Kings and Jazz are “out” of the race. Finishing off the math, this appears to leave a brutal five way fight between the Lakers, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Mavericks and Blazers for the final two playoff spots. While I personally give the edge to the Timberwolves and Nuggets, it is well within the realm of possibility for the Lakers and Blazers to be squaring off for a final playoff spot at the end of next season.
So then, where does this leave Kobe and his Achilles? As of this writing, the injury and surgery occured a hair under four months ago. I have seen “expected” recovery time tables ranging anywhere from six to 12 months (hence the aforementioned cluelessness). Six months would put Kobe’s return at October 13th, or right in the middle of training camp (the Lakers’ opener is October 29th against the Clippers). If he skips training camp and the preseason games, Kobe could suit up “for real” against the Clippers six months and 16 days after his surgery.
I’m not buying it. We all know he is a hard worker, in great shape, and a warrior, but facts are facts: tearing an Achilles is a major injury, and Kobe will be 35 in two and a half weeks. Father Time catches up with everyone, even the best (excuse me while I shed a tear for Roger Federer), and both Kobe and the Lakers organization would be foolhardy to ignore these unquestionable facts.
The Blazers first play the Lakers, at the Staples Center, on December 1st. This would be seven months and 18 days after surgery. I personally still think it would be a stretch to pencil Kobe in at this point, but given his fierce determination, it’s certainly possible. Kobe and the Lakers do not make an appearance in Portland until March 3rd, which is likely far enough out to say that Kobe will be playing, barring any major setbacks.
Back to the playoff race. On the Blazers side, *if* Damian Lillard can make a significant jump, Nicolas Batum can stay healthy and play near his potential, and Robin Lopez can stay healthy, I fully expect the Blazers to be in a position to contend for a final playoff spot. Those are three massive “ifs” though.
The Lakers case gets a bit trickier: Assume that Kobe makes it back in time for the full season. All of a sudden, you’re looking at a starting lineup containing Steve Nash, Kobe, and Pau Gasol (three likely Hall of Famers, considering Gasol’s international accomplishments), coached by one of the all-time great innovators in Mike D’Antoni, who will have a full off-season to work with this year. The big “if” here will collectively be injuries. If all three of these older guys can stay healthy, I think the Lakers will be better than people think. Yes, they won’t be able to play a lick of defense, but D’Antoni has had success ignoring that side of the ball before during his heydays in Phoenix.
Their other issue will be depth. As D’Antoni proved AGAIN last season (Amar’e nods somberly), running your best players into the ground is not a viable strategy. The problem is, after the three mentioned above, the Lakers have… who? Chris Kaman? Nick Young? As best as I can tell, after amnestying the artist formerly known as Artest, the Lakers don’t even have a true small forward on their roster. That roster is looking mighty thin, something that could very well spell trouble for the team during the grind of an 82 game season. Even a fully recovered Kobe (which is still a massive uncertainty) can only do so much.
My final predictions stand at Kobe not returning until the regular season is well underway, and the Blazers and the Lakers duking it out for ninth place in the West. It only takes one team that I have projected higher to slip up, though, for the Blazers and Lakers to be in scrap fight for the final playoff spot. If this ends up being the case (which would be admittedly awesome), that nationally televised game between the two teams on April 1st could become extremely important.