Even before going down with a knee injury on Tuesday in Memphis night it seemed that the days of Kobe Bryant having his way with everyone (see what I did there) were in the rearview mirror. In the six games he played since returning from a torn Achilles tendon he had been a shadow of his former self.
Obviously delving into his status for those games any information gleaned must be taken with a gigantic grain of “small sample size” salt, but his three-point shooting percentage being below 19% is nearly 10% lower than his previous career low of 27%, and all his numbers across the board are very un Kobe like in his 18th NBA season.
Now the Lakers will have to wait at least another six weeks to see if the Kobe of days gone by will ever return to the lineup. But what perhaps is an even bigger question than that, is will it even matter for the Lakers if he does. The team that was once a constant powerhouse in the Western Conference has spiralled deeper and deeper into dysfunction since the 2011 Championship and the departure of Phil Jackson.
While a surprise run this season could technically still happen if Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant are able to return quickly and are effective when they return, it is beyond this season where things get complicated. In 2014 the Lakers have million dollars committed to the geriatric duo that is Bryant and Nash. Now obviously the merits of earmarking big time money to an aging star can be debated for days but the Lakers made their own bed and now they have to lie in it. Besides that the Lakers only have three other bit players under contract for next season. Now the Lakers do have enough cap space to sign someone to a max contract, however I don’t see Lebron James or Carmelo Anthony heading to the City of Angels anytime soon.
That means that the injuries that Kobe and Nash are dealing with may be a blessing in disguise for the Lakers. When you have a generational talent like Kobe on your roster it’s a tough sell to go into rebuild mode, something that is even harder to do in a market the size of L.A. So the team ends up overpaying for the past performances of proven players and doesn’t acquire high impact draft picks to grow into the next generation of talent. Think of the Miami Heat after Shaq left and before Lebron arrived, or the Philadelphia Phillies since 2012. These teams end up in a competitive purgatory of sorts unable to build a deep enough team to contend for a title but buoyed by their remaining star power to keep them out of the draft lottery
However now in 2013 with the Lakers sustaining these injuries to key players, it may be their best shot at hitting a lottery pick without hiring Isaiah Thomas. If the Lakers continue to free fall in the standings before Nash and Bryant return to the lineup they could be beyond all hope for 2013 and maybe even be sellers at the trade deadline if they are able to parlay players such as Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol into draft picks or other future assets. Dealing these pieces is tricky particularly Gasol because in order to move a player making the sort of money that Pau is the Lakers would need to take some salary back, and trading expiring contracts for deals with more years on them is not a good way to rebuild in cap system. But perhaps some clever wheeling and dealing and three team deals could see the Lakers add assets without salary commitments.
After witnessing the very sudden descent from dominance to retirement that future hall of fame pitcher Roy Halladay just went through one can only hope that we haven’t seen the last of Kobe Bryant as a relevant contributor on the NBA stage. If however these injuries allow the team to land in prime draft position and acquire some assets to move forward with a healthy Bryant in the 2014 season then this may work out for the best for the Lakers and help keep them out of competitive limbo.
So if this is the beginning of the end for Bryant we should just consider ourselves lucky to have had 18 years to watch his wizardry, and if he is back in full force with a reloaded Lakers squad come next October we can count ourselves even luckier.