Some sports analysts, trainers and doctors expect Kobe Bryant to recover from his Achilles injury in time to play for the Los Angeles Lakers season opener Oct. 29. Some have even gone so far as to guarantee that Kobe would play.
But even if Bryant ends up healthy enough to play that night against the Los Angeles Clippers, Coach Mike D’Antoni, Mitch Kupchak and the rest of the Lakers organization shouldn’t let him.
Playing too many minutes while injured is why Bryant ruptured his Achilles, and I blame D’Antoni for it. A head coach must protect his players—even from themselves. Letting Bryant play more than 45 minutes a game in his last five games amounted to abuse.
Charles Barkley and sports fans were able to predict an injury as a result of Bryant playing so many minutes. Why couldn’t D’Antoni?
D’Antoni chose to risk Bryant’s health so that the Lakers could capture a playoff spot and so that D’Antoni could save his job (for the time being). And now the same kind of abuse that forced Bryant to limp off the court last season may drive him back onto the court too early this season.
With all the rumors about Bryant coming back to play the season opener, I fear that the Lakers want Bryant to play as soon as possible. The Lakers need Bryant to win. Even with Bryant on the team, a roster filled with hobbled veterans like Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and, yes, Kobe Bryant, along with mid-level unknowns (Xavier who?) led ESPN to rank the Lakers 12th in the Western Conference.
But taking Bryant off the PUP list not only helps the Lakers win games—it also helps the Lakers sell tickets.
The Lakers brand is estimated to be the second most valuable brand in the NBA, according to Forbes, behind only the New York Knicks. This past decade the Lakers’ value has depended almost exclusively on Bryant’s popularity and marketability.
Since 2008 Bryant has reigned as the most popular player in the NBA, according to NBA’s stats and jersey sales. Only recently did LeBron James dethrone him. Of course a spike in James’ jersey sales was expected after the Miami Heat won their second consecutive NBA title, and Bryant may soon redeem himself as the most popular player in the NBA once James’ championship glory wears off.
Therefore both D’Antoni and the Lakers organization have incentives to play Kobe as soon as possible. And as NFL fans are finding out, trainers and doctors who are paid by professional sports teams are likely to give players the green light even while private medical experts deem those players’ conditions too critical to play.
I trust Gary Vitti, the Lakers’ head athletic trainer, to heal Bryant. Nonetheless, Bryant should take even more time than recommended in order to recover.
Derek Rose was both praised and criticized for taking the whole 2012-13 season off in order to recover from his ACL injury. Bryant must do the same if he wants to ensure his long-term health. But if he doesn’t want to take the extra time off, the Lakers need to make him. Otherwise, like last season, this season could end in disaster for Bryant and the Lakers.