EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- From this point on, Kobe Bryant's biggest strength will be his ability to assess his weaknesses.
He's entering the final stages of his recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon, and was visibly buoyed by his first full practice of the season Tuesday. "Felt like it was '97 again," he said.
Except the calendar says it's 2013. And it's the ability to acknowledge the toll the 17 NBA seasons -- in addition to this major injury -- have exacted that will determine his effectiveness going forward. Most of us can't make accurate self-assessments when we look in a mirror or step on a scale. Imagine the level of brutal honesty it requires to measure the gap between a Hall of Fame-worthy career and a lesser state. The greatest are usually the last ones to recognize when they no longer are. That's what inevitably leads to their demise.
The most fascinating aspect of Bryant's rehabilitation hasn't been the progress; it's been his comments on the regression. The man whose stubbornness helped him ascend to the upper elevations of the NBA all-time scoring list has been remarkably candid about the presence of shortcomings.
"If you have limitations, you have to be honest with yourself and self-assess," Bryant said Tuesday after he stepped off the Lakers' practice court. "If you have those limitations, you have to figure out a way to be effective around those. You can't be stubborn about it. There's certain things that I used to do that I can't do now. I won't try to do them. You've got to figure out other ways."
What will make this process easier is that Bryant's game has been evolving toward this stage for years. He long ago stopped trying to score by going over people. He focused on beating them to his favorite spots first, or falling away as he shoots.
You'll notice that Bryant isn't saying he can't do it anymore; he's saying he can't do it the way he used to do it.
Speed isn't an ally. Strength is.
"I'm a lot, lot stronger," Bryant said. "I'm able to hold defenders off pretty easily with my off hand and maintain position on the post. I'm much, much stronger than I was."
The immediate test is whether he'll wait until he's completely ready to come back, or will he be overwhelmed by eagerness to return to the game that brings him so much enjoyment (it was evident just by the satisfaction he gained from making a fallaway jumper from the top of the key as the shot clock expired in practice Tuesday).
"You have to kind of detach yourself somewhat and make sure that when you come back, you're ready to give the team the proper lift," Bryant said. "It's very tough to do that, but it's something that has to be done."
He'll see how the tendon and a problematic ankle respond to this day of work and then reassess. He'll check the progress as the Lakers get in work prior to their game against the Golden State Warriors Friday, a game in which Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said he does not expect Bryant to participate.
D'Antoni knows full well that he nor anyone else in the organization has the power to keep Kobe out once he decides he's ready to play. When Kobe plays, how Kobe plays, the effectiveness of Kobe's play -- it's all dependent on Kobe's candid assessments of Kobe.