No one doubts that Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant will return from his Achilles injury, and it's a safe bet to think that Bryant may be ready to go by opening day of the 2013-14 season. But what kind of Kobe will the Lakers welcome back?
And if the Lakers fail to qualify for the postseason this year, the Kobe situation could get a little complicated.
According to ESPN's Dave McMenamin, Bryant's recovery period may take anywhere from six to nine months, but can Kobe's fans expect that he will be the same player he was before he was injured? More importantly, can the Lakers?
Since Kobe's season-ending injury, there have been whispers about the Lakers potentially using their amnesty clause on Bryant during the July 1-9 window designated by the NBA. What was once an unthinkable proposition doesn't seem so silly now.
The Lakers could save themselves $60 million to $80 million in penalties they would incur for being so far north of the league's salary cap, and Bryant would still receive his $30 million next season.
In spite of Kobe's injury, failing to reach the postseason would certify the Lakers as one of the biggest busts in the history of team sports, and it would give the franchise a legitimate reason to reshape the roster. And what better way to give yourself wiggle room than by amnestying your most expensive player?
To his credit, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak says he hasn't even considered using the clause on Bryant, but it's hard to believe him considering how quickly the circumstances have changed.
Bryant is no spring chicken, and the Achilles injury may be a result of the constant pounding he has endured this season. The tendon will heal, but there is no way for Bryant to recover the quickness and lateral movement that comes with that that type of injury.
Not to mention the natural deterioration of skills from the advance of Father Time.
I could never imagine deceased Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss bailing on one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise, especially in a moment like this, but will Jim Buss show Kobe that same type of loyalty?
Unceremoniously discarding Bryant would be an extremely unpopular move in the eyes of Lakers fans, but Buss' decision to hire Mike D'Antoni instead of Phil Jackson proves that he couldn't really care less what the fans think about how he runs the Lakers.
Hopefully Buss is not that crazy to alienate the next great Laker to have his jersey hung in the rafters at Staples Center, but if he did, can you picture Bryant retiring quietly into the night?
Bryant would probably overlook the business aspects of such a move and use it as motivation to return to the game at a high level. And once again, if any player is capable of making that kind of recovery from such a devastating injury, it's Kobe Bryant.
Of course, there is a possibility that Bryant will not be ready to go at the beginning of next season, but if he is and the Lakers amnesty him, then it means they will have to wait a full season before re-signing him. Do you think Bryant would wait that long to return to the court if he's healthy?
And do the Lakers really want their standard-bearer finishing his career with a potential rival, and even worse, holding a grudge?
In most cases it's easy for a franchise to cut emotional ties with a player in the name of good business, but Kobe is not just any player.
Walking away from Bryant now will likely cause more long-term pain and turmoil for the NBA's signature franchise, regardless of what Dwight Howard decides to do this summer. Therefore, my guess is the team welcomes Bryant back with open arms, and then sends him on his way next summer.
So far, little has gone right for the Lakers this year, and losing Kobe for the rest of the season and the playoffs seems like the ultimate blow.
However, disrespecting Bryant by using the amnesty clause could make a bad situation even worse by tarnishing the franchise's relationship with one of its greatest players.