HANG TIME WEST – This was the night the Lakers learned that missing the playoffs wasn’t the worst case scenario.
Their world changed when Kobe Bryant went down during Friday night’s victory over the Warriors in Los Angeles, an injury that was initially diagnosed as a torn left Achilles’ tendon with an MRI scheduled for Saturday for confirmation. That’s not entirely true, actually. The real perspective is the entire NBA world changed, so great is his impact as the driving force and emotional leader behind a Lakers bunch trying to remain relevant.
It’s bigger than this season. The Lakers were already doomed. Maybe they would have made the playoffs, and maybe they still will beat out the Jazz for No. 8 in the Western Conference, but they would have been longshots to beat San Antonio or the Thunder in the first round.
Bryant, the ultimate competitor, left little hope in the locker room after the game the injury was anything less than the torn tendon just above the heel. That means the potential for missing the majority of next season. And that, in the bottom-line perspective, means every topic is open for discussion.
He was open to talking extension with the Lakers in the summer, but told NBA.com on March 30 that he was leaning toward retiring after 2013-14, the final season on his contract. Does the possibility of going out on what figures to be a very un-Kobe campaign, with most of the campaign lost to injury and not being at 100 percent once he does return, change the thinking?
Next season was shaping up as the final commitment to the current Lakers, with only Steve Nash under contract beyond July 1, 2014. They would then have crossed the bridge to the future with – they hope – Dwight Howard in the lead role. But if Bryant can’t play most of 2013-14 and the Lakers have no cap room to spent on star-level free agent (which is not an “if”), what impact will that have on the decisions of summer ’13? Amnesty Pau Gasol, a possibility anyway, rather than spend big for a power forward on a team with little realistic chance of a playoff run? Amnesty Metta World Peace, also a possibility anyway?
And what of The Decision out of Lakers HQ this offseason? What does the potential of little contribution next season from Bryant mean for Howard’s future? Will he love the idea of this being his team a year ahead of schedule and be more inclined to re-sign knowing the offense revolves around him? Or will Howard hate the idea of the demanding level of expectation that comes with life under the heat lamps of being a Laker and not want to have to face that burden?
Everything changed the moment the medical update went from unspecified leg injury to a probable torn Achilles. In that instant, in that likely franchise-changing, possible NBA-changing instant, it became about so much more than how the Lakers would manage without Bryant for the final two games of the regular season and whether they would make the playoffs. This is about next season and, given the Howard decision, the next many seasons.
No timetable for a return will be set until after the severity of the injury is confirmed, but this could be six months or even longer. That would not be a surprise. We’re talking that far into the future. We’re talking that much on the line.