Clock ticking even faster for Kobe
Latest injury a reminder of how little time Lakers legend has left on the court
The word that comes to mind on the latest Kobe Bryant injury news?
NBA fans are deprived of about 21 chances of what are starting to feel like increasingly finite opportunities to watch Bryant play basketball. Bryant is deprived of the joy he clearly gets from the game. The Lakers could be deprived of roster flexibility if more than a third of their salary cap the next 2½ seasons is devoted to a player who can't stay on the court. And it's looking as if his increasingly fragile body could deprive him of a chance to set the NBA's all-time points mark.
We'll calculate those numbers in a moment, but first, it's natural to wonder about the emotional repercussions, which eventually will dictate whether Bryant wants to stick around long enough to reach the top of the record book.
The torn left Achilles tendon that Bryant suffered in April actually served to renew his will to play. At a time when he was wondering if he could keep pushing himself to maintain his high standards, the major injury provided all the incentive he needed. He'd show everyone who doubted him that he could come back and play as well as ever. Surgery the next day, rehab as soon as the swelling went down. Every perceived slight simply meant more reps.
He came back inside the six-to-nine-month window that was projected, and managed to score at least 20 points three times in six games -- in addition to a 13-assist night the first time he was asked to fill in at point guard.
Then came Thursday's news that he would be out another six weeks with a broken bone in the kneecap of that same left leg, and with it came a whole new set of issues and challenges. At some point the injuries will stop being motivational tools and start to become deterrents. They could even force Bryant to come to terms with a word that I wonder if he's ever said to himself: impossible.
Let's do the math. If Bryant comes back in exactly six weeks there will be 36 games left in the Lakers' season. If he plays all of those, and every game in the two seasons remaining on his contract, he'll have 200 games left to score the 6,688 points he needs to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Abdul-Jabbar wore No. 33, and that's the number of points per game Bryant would need to average to get there -- 33.44 points, to be precise. Kobe hasn't scored 30 points a game since the 2006-07 season, when he averaged 31.6. If Bryant came back for an additional full season it would drop his scoring requirement from now through 2016-17 to 23.7 points per game.
When Bryant sat down with the TV crew before ESPN's broadcast of the Lakers-Thunder game last week, Jeff Van Gundy asked if Bryant would add years to his career just to chase Abdul-Jabbar's record. Bryant said he wouldn't because he didn't set Abdul-Jabbar's record as one of his goals when he first got into the game, so it's not something that would drive him as he neared the end.
I believe Kobe's goal was to be the best of all time, and he sees besting Kareem's record as an asset in that argument, but not a singular pursuit on its own. He has to be aware that getting the record wouldn't settle the "who's the greatest" debate. Kareem has the record and six championship rings and somehow gets excluded from the conversation far too often. Karl Malone is ahead of Michael Jordan on the scoring list, but that's one of the very few times you'll see those names listed in that order. Kobe thinks a sixth ring would bolster his case more than another 6,688 points -- even though another championship is starting to feel as improbable as the scoring crown.
For Kobe, the clock is counting down while his odometer is racking up miles. He's 35, with birthday No. 36 looming next August. Seven times have players averaged at least 20 points per game in a season between the ages of 36 and 38 -- all by the only three players ahead of Bryant on the all-time scoring list: Abdul-Jabbar (21.5 points at age 36, 22.0 points at age 37 and 23.4 points at age 38), Malone (25.5 points at age 36, 23.2 points at age 37 and 22.4 points at age 38) and Jordan (22.9 points at age 38).
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Since Bryant came into the NBA straight from high school, unlike the other players on that list, the most relevant number might be seasons played. Bryant is already in his 18th year. If you're asking how many players have averaged 20 points between their 18th and 20th seasons, the answer is one guy, one time: Karl Malone, at 20.6 points in Year 18, 2002-03.
Again, the record-breaking calculations are based on Bryant playing every possible game. And how likely is that? For Bryant, the Achilles is probably the least of his concerns at the moment. Other parts of the body got weaker and weren't the primary focus of his rehab. Other parts can get hurt while trying to compensate for other parts that are hurt.
Chauncey Billups returned from a torn Achilles tendon with the Clippers last season only to encounter problems with his foot, back and groin. He played in only 22 games last season and has appeared in 11 games so far this season with the Detroit Pistons.
Any time there's a discussion about a Bryant injury, you always hear the same caveat from players, coaches and doctors: "It's Kobe."
Kobe's determination brought him back to the court this month and even brought back flashes of his old self. But it wasn't enough to keep him from getting injured again, and provides no guarantee that it won't happen another time.
His absence already reminded us to pay close attention to the time he has left, because it might not even be as much as we thought. In a weird way, more injuries would make that $48.5 million extension he signed worth more on a per-game basis, because they could make each outing more exceptional, more required viewing on the Lakers' new television network whose rights fees dwarf Kobe's contract.
Each game he's out makes each game he's back seem a little more valuable, even if we're watching for what he was, more than what he is.