Lakers didn't treat aging superstar properly

SAN ANTONIO -- Kobe Bryant might have said it at a practice or a game, and he might have said it a month ago, or maybe longer. Byron Scott doesn't quite remember.

What the Lakers coach does remember is his star guard saying that his shoulder was bothering him.

“You all right?” Scott said he asked Bryant.

“I’m all right,” Bryant replied.

The two never talked about the issue again, Scott said.

Then Wednesday, in a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, Bryant tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder, an injury that will likely sideline him for the rest of the season, though a final decision on that will be made early next week, likely Monday.

But Friday, before the Lakers’ 99-85 loss to the San Antonio Spurs here, Scott recounted two rather serious missteps regarding Bryant’s health that Scott said could very well be tied to Bryant’s latest ailment.

The first issue is well known: Scott simply played the 36-year old Bryant way too many minutes earlier this season -- a team-high 35.4 per night during the team’s first 27 games -- even though he said Bryant asked to play fewer minutes from the start.

“I don’t know if the wear and tear of playing so many minutes early is a result of what’s happening to him right now,” Scott said. “To be honest with you, I thought about that, it made me almost sick.”

Scott said he apologized to Bryant via text.

“His response was like, 'No, that ain’t it,'” Scott said. “He tried to make me feel better.”

Then Scott discussed Bryant’s nagging shoulder issue, which hadn’t been made public, and they brought it up again this week after Bryant appeared to tear his rotator cuff on what seemed to be a no-frills baseline dunk against the Pelicans.

“You remember when I said it?” Bryant said, according to Scott.

“Yeah, I remember,” Scott said.

“I think it was kind of hurting then and I just re-aggravated it on a much higher level,” Bryant replied.

Bryant has played through numerous injuries and said so again Wednesday.

“I’ve played on a torn labrum before,” he said. “I’m not too concerned about it.”

Bryant also basically played with just his left hand after suffering the injury Wednesday but said that wasn’t unusual. He said that he had played entire games left-handed before too, in 2003, 2004 and 2006 because of a separated shoulder.

But that was years ago. He’s aged plenty in NBA years, put on many more NBA miles and suffered two recent major injuries (Achilles and knee). So much is different.

Yet Kobe is still Kobe.

He still believes he can overcome because, well, he always has, even against great odds. The people around him -- namely Scott -- believe the same. At times, though, everyone seems to forget that Kobe Bryant is, first and foremost, human.

The usual protocol for a nagging injury, Scott said, is for a player to go talk to the team’s trainer, Gary Vitti. Does Scott know if Bryant ever did that? “I don’t,” Scott said.

In hindsight, these issues appear greatly troubling, because just as Bryant must treat every aspect of his health, training and diet so seriously at this age just so he can perform, so too must the Lakers, and especially Scott, be ever so cautious with him.

That’s all the more true because Bryant is the Lakers’ sole attraction during an awful season, the lone reason for fans to tune in or attend games, all they really have to look forward to until the draft lottery. From a business sense, Bryant is their cash cow -- their extremely well-paid cash cow -- and thus missteps are extremely costly.

Where does blame lie? Certainly some falls on Bryant. He’s as powerful as any figure within the Lakers’ organization and as powerful as any player within any NBA franchise. If he wanted to play fewer minutes, he could have. If he wanted to get his shoulder examined earlier, he could have. The only person who could’ve stopped Kobe was Kobe, but he didn’t, because Kobe is Kobe. He believes he will overcome.

So the blame truly falls on Scott, who hasn’t been shy about admitting his fault in the issue. And, to a greater degree, the blame truly falls on the entire organization for not stepping in at some point earlier on when Bryant was playing all those minutes.

If the Lakers wanted a good lesson in how to handle superstars late in their careers, they only needed to glance down the sideline Friday.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he started resting Tim Duncan after winning the championship in 1999 “because the following year Timmy had a bad knee going into the playoffs. We had to make a decision.”

Duncan was 23 years old at the time and had just played his second NBA season.

“The docs cleared him, he could probably play, but I didn’t let him,” Popovich said. “I held him out. I did that with the thought of wanting him to have as long of a career as he wanted to. I didn’t want to take a chance to send him out there and do more damage to it. We had playoffs. So it started way back then.”

Fast-forward to Friday, and Duncan, now 38, had 14 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks in 20 tidy minutes as the Spurs rolled to a double-digit win.

Scott has talked about the Spurs being the “blueprint” for how to properly rest players, and Popovich talked about that blueprint, the one the Lakers didn’t follow.

“You have a long view in the sense that you think about it, you look at the schedule at the beginning of the year, that kind of thing,” Popovich said. “Because it depends on how much people played in the last three days or last night and what’s coming up in the schedule or who else is hurt or injured.

“It’s never about wins or losses, it’s not about that,” Popovich said. “You don’t overplay somebody to get the win. Sometimes you’re in circumstances where it happens, like the two triple-overtimes we had. That really skewed things for us. I hated watching those guys play all those minutes, but I guess it would have been sweeter if we won. In general, it’s a process and you talk about it daily and weekly.”

The phrases “It’s never about wins and losses” and “You don’t overplay somebody to get the win” appear to be exactly what the Lakers didn’t do with Bryant early on this season, even though this season was never headed anywhere to begin with.

Either way, Bryant is now hurt, likely gone for the season, facing yet another rehab, and it’s not clear how this will affect what should be his final season in the NBA.

“Nobody wants to see that happen,” said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili. “It sucks. The league needs him. He’s one of the best players that ever played.”

"When somebody like that of that stature goes down, it’s not good for everybody, obviously for his team but for the league and you miss guys like Derrick Rose for instance, the last couple of years, or Kobe or anybody else like that," Popovich said.

"It’s a loss for the league, for fans, for all of us. I can think of a lot of shots Kobe’s made that’s basically knocked us out, and in an odd, weird sort of way I still enjoy it. When you see a talent like that, when they don’t play anymore then you say ‘Wow, I got to see so and so play.’ He’s one of those kind of guys.”

Spurs guard Tony Parker agreed.

“When I first came here, Spurs-Lakers, that’s all we talked about,” Parker said. “It was a huge rivalry, with him and Shaq. Those were great years.

“They always say good stuff has to have an end, but hopefully we can see him one more time next year and he’ll be healthy and finish on a high.”

Hopefully, that will be the case. Hopefully, Bryant can recover and go out on his own terms, whatever those may be. But considering he’s now facing his third consecutive season-ending injury, a storybook ending may simply not be possible, even for someone with such an iron will as Kobe Bryant.

He’ll have his five rings, but a graceful exit could elude him, and it’s hard not to look back at this season and wonder why more wasn’t done to help him achieve that.