Making official what had been obvious for weeks, the Lakers announced Wednesday that Kobe Bryant will not play again this season, saying, in the words of trainer Gary Vitti, “we’ve simply run out of time for him to return” from the fractured left knee.
Out of time for 2013-14, Vitti meant. Really, though, this is about Bryant’s NBA time. He will begin next season at 36 years old, coming off two serious injuries and with the Lakers needing an immediate recovery to go with the remaining games from the career of an all-time great.
His presence alone means the Lakers will remain in win-now mode and try to hit free agency and the trade market hard in the offseason. It’s a plan Bryant threw his support behind, naturally, by telling reporters in Los Angeles after the injury update that he had “not one lick” of patience.
No two-year blueprints, in other words, putting management in a tough position to either make a deal in the summer that is not in the long-term interests of the team or buy a lot of ear plugs. Millions of angry fans are nothing compared to the volume of one fed-up Kobe.
Just take a gander at some of his quotes during his news conference today in L.A. …
Q: On who he is referring to when he wants to prove the doubters wrong for next season:
Bryant: Am I just supposed to name names? I guess I could name names of every TV anchor and sportscaster and competitor that’s said something that I view as being a challenge, but it’s a long list. What you have to do is take all that, accept it and understand where everybody’s going from and now you take it as a challenge. You go out there and do what you do.
Q: On what he envisions next year with the team having a lot of financial flexibility going into the offseason:
Bryant: I think we have to start at the top in terms of the culture of our team, what kind of culture do we want to have, what kind of system do we want to have, how do we want to play. And it starts there, and then from there, you can start building out your team accordingly.
Q: On the struggles of this year and if it’s something where he tries to distance himself from a season like this:
Bryant: I feel like killing everybody every time I go to the arena. I’m on edge all the time. I feel it, probably more than anybody in the organization does. I feel it more. It drives me absolutely crazy.
Q: On if he has any patience to wait another year after this offseason to improve the roster:
Bryant: No, nope, not one lick. Let’s just play next year and suck again. No, absolutely not, absolutely not. It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it. You have to get things done. Same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court, the same expectations I have for them up there. You have to be able to figure out a way to do both.
For now, the participants are saying all the right things about Bryant’s expected recovery by fall, the fresh start after their little stroll through the Great Below this season. In a statement through the team, Bryant said, “Obviously this has been a frustrating and disappointing season, but I appreciate all the suppd from the Lakers and the fans, and look forward to being back and ready for the start of training camp.” Vitti’s full comment, in the same release, was, “With Kobe’s injury still not healed, the amount of time he’d need to rehab and be ready to play, and the amount of time remaining in the season, we’ve simply run out of time for him to return. However, Kobe will have the entire offseason to heal, rehab and prepare, and we look forward to him being 100% for the start of next season.”
Which was the plan for this season, albeit not necessarily at the start. He did come back from the torn Achilles’ tendon and played six games at a level that was choppy but understandable under the circumstances – 29.5 minutes, 42.5 percent from the field, 13.8 points, 6.3 assists, 5.67 turnovers – only to be brought down by the fractured knee on Dec. 17.
The recovery was slower than he expected, planned updates with doctors were pushed back, and it took only until All-Star weekend for the end of the season to become clearly visible. His usual insistence of defying the expectations and playing again was replaced by telling NBA.com that “I haven’t been thinking about it” and “I keep my blinders on and just try to get healthy” when asked if he felt like he had played his last game of 2013-14. The change in tone was impossible not to notice.
The bottom-line news had been coming for a while, as the clock continued to run and Bryant couldn’t even get close to a return to practice for a test run. He met with team physician Dr. Steve Lombardo on Wednesday, the Lakers said, and it was determined once and for all that the fractured lateral tibial plateau in the left knee had not healed. Season over.
It’s the future that remains very much in doubt, not just for Bryant on the health front but also with the uncertain summer for the roster around him. Steve Nash may or may not be back, depending on his recovery from nerve damage in his back that, barring a shocking development, has ended his 2013-14 as well. Pau Gasol may or may not be back, with Gasol having told NBA.com in December that he may force the breakup, not the Lakers. Kobe’s health is just one aspect, before L.A. has run out of time for his return, period.