On the heels (bad pun alert!) of the Mamba's return to practice, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement and buzz. Kobe is almost back, and he's immediately going to fix all of the problems that have plagued the Purple and Gold during their lackluster start to the season.
Well, hold your horses. Slow your roll. Sit tight and wait a minute. Do whatever cliche phrase you need to do in order to temper the expectations.
Yes, Kobe is back...at practice. That much is clear.
First, he told Rick Fox during an interview for NBATV that he would be able to suit up if that night's game were a playoff game.
You can see the full dialogue below, and it's a pretty entertaining watch, as is everything that involves Old Man Kobe.
Then, the news got even better, as Kobe actually suited up for a Lakers practice. According to Sam Amick of USA Today, it was the first time he'd joined the team for these activities since suffering the injury on April 12, 2013.
As Steve Blake told the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan, "He looks like Kobe to me, basically. He’s moving well, right back to his old self." The point guard also noted that Kobe was right in the thick of things when the slow-paced practice had its intensity amped up a couple notches.
All of these developments are undoubtedly positive.
Every step Kobe makes in his recovery leads to his ability to take steps on the hardwood during actual games. But again, it's important to keep the expectations realistic.
Viewing Kobe as a savior is a little bit too much.
He's Not Back Yet
Even though he's practicing, Kobe could still be a while away from his actual return to the court.
Remember, the original timetable for his Achilles injury was six to nine months. We're only at seven right now, which means that we're still on the early end of the recovery period, and he'd still be within it if he waited until 2014 to make it back to the Staples Center during live action.
On top of that, nothing really points toward an immediate return other than Kobe's superhuman reputation. It wouldn't be completely shocking if he walked onto the court the next time the Lakers had a game, but it would be a little surprising.
In that same interview with NBATV, Kobe also delivered a few more choice quotes.
The Mamba continued his statement that he could play in a playoff game by saying, "I don’t know how effective I’d be, but I would play.” He also said, "The fadeaway still works, the ball-handling and being able to post."
Those are limited skills.
He doesn't talk about his ability to play defense, his explosiveness or how he would handle the up-and-down nature of the game. Now that we have access to SportVU data via NBA.com, we can see just how much players are running during the average game.
Bradley Beal is currently leading the league by moving 2.9 miles per contest, and there are plenty of players just behind him. Jodie Meeks, for example, is running 1.9 miles per game, and that's just about the role the Mamba would have to take on upon his return.
A distance of 1.9 miles is a lot of movement for a player seven months clear of an Achilles injury, especially because it requires so much dynamic running instead of straight-line movement. It's not like he'd be jogging that distance, but rather sprinting, changing directions, jumping and engaging in all sorts of physical contact.
On top of that, practice time is necessary before he can play.
Additionally, Mitch Kupchak has confirmed Mike D'Antoni's sentiments. According to the L.A. Times' Eric Pincus, "Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Sunday he does not anticipate that Kobe Bryant will be able to return from his Achilles' tendon injury within the next two weeks."
The reason? That would be, once more, the lack of practice.
But let's say that Kobe somehow bucks the odds, as he's done throughout his impressive career, and returns to action. Even if that happens, he's still not guaranteed to make an immediate impact.
Effectiveness Upon His Return
It's easy to assume Kobe is going to be at 100 percent right when he returns, but that's by no means guaranteed to be the case. And we have a perfect example from the 2013-14 season.
Derrick Rose is a former MVP, but even after taking a long time to recover from his torn ACL, he's struggled immensely at the beginning of his recovery campaign. Going into the blowout win over the Indiana Pacers, the point guard was averaging only 14.7 points and 4.5 assists per game, shooting 33.3 percent from the field and racking up nearly as many turnovers as assists.
In fact, D-Rose was the not-so-proud owner of a 6.75 PER, less than half of the league-average mark of 15.
This is by no means a perfect comparison, but if Rose cannot come back, what makes us think the decade-older Mamba can rebound at 100 percent in less time from a more devastating injury? And make no mistake about it: The Achilles injury is worse than the torn ACL.
As Dominque Wilkins told Amick:
That's tough, man. That's tough. As you get older, you don't heal as easily like we did when we were younger. Six months is quick. I will tell you that.
It took me nine months to really get back to the form and the level that I once played. He's got to be patient. That's the biggest thing for me. He has to be patient.
So, what does 'Nique know about this? Why are his thoughts relevant?
Wilkins is the oldest player in the last 20 years to return to form after tearing an Achilles. The former Atlanta Hawks superstar was 32 years old when he went down, and he made the All-Star team after returning—the only player to do so.
Kevin Pelton, then writing for Basketball Prospectus, did a great, informative study in 2012 after Chauncey Billups tore his Achilles. Of the 11 players he studied, only four—'Nique, Jonas Jerebko, Dan Dickau and DeSagana Diop—ever returned to form. And when we're talking about Jerebko, Dickau and Diop, can that form really be that impressive?
Four never played again, and the remaining three just weren't the same.
It's too early to pass final judgment on Mr. Big Shot, but it looks like he'll eventually be placed in the final category. And who's to say the same won't be true for the Mamba?
We assume it won't because, c'mon, it's Kobe. But what kind of logical reasoning is that? Why should the grit and determination of one man override medical precedent?
It's a logical fallacy to assume a human can be superhuman, despite what the Mamba has shown us about playing through pain.
Lakers Have Other Things to Focus On
Finally, the Lakers have enough problems that need their focused attention right now. Assuming Kobe is going to come back and solve everything, newsflash: He's not, because of this thing called defense—it's only a distraction.
In fact, it would be better for the Lake Show to pretend Kobe is out for the season. Maximize the effectiveness of the current roster, and then treat him as gravy on top when he does return. After all, every win is important in the brutally tough and highly competitive Western Conference.
Right now, the Lakers just don't look very impressive.
Not only would they be outside of the playoff picture and looking in if the season ended today thanks to their 4-7 record, but they also haven't been too potent on either end of the court. According to Basketball-Reference, the Lakers have the No. 27 offensive rating in the NBA and the No. 16 defensive rating.
It's tough enough to remain competitive when coming in the bottom half on either side of the ball, much less on both. D'Antoni must concentrate his efforts on the more pressing problems, not allowing himself to be distracted by the eventual return of the Mamba.
How does he get the backcourt to stop doing its best imitation of a sieve on defense? What can he do to make Pau Gasol confident, as something is obviously amiss for the big man who's shooting only 38.9 percent from the field?
Hell, what's the best lineup he can use? How many minutes do Nick Young and Jordan Hill need, among others?
There are a lot of questions revolving around these residents of the Staples Center, but the ones directly involving Kobe can't be allowed to take center stage. They may have the biggest potential impact, but that doesn't make them the most pressing.
In Season 2 of The Wire, a stick-up artist named Omar Little sits on the stand delivering testimony at a murder trial. When asked how he's lived for eight or nine years while making his living by robbing drug dealers, Omar sits back and responds, "Day at a time, I suppose."
That's exactly the mentality that the Lakers must adopt, even on the heels of Kobe's return to practice. Staying alive in the Western Conference might be even more difficult than remaining on the right side of the ground while robbing Baltimore's drug dealers.
L.A. has to treat its life the same way Omar did his. In fact, it's the same way Kobe is treating his own rehab.
Just a day at a time.
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