Pre-season question of the day: How will Kobe Bryant's right index finger fare in 2010-11?
Hopefully, you're not eating breakfast just yet. And if you are, keep the milk and cereal away from the computer in case the above photo freaks you out.
Looks like Lakers guard Kobe Bryant's fingers are super bendable -- except for that bandaged digit, which is a familiar sight for Lakers fans. It's an injury that happened Dec. 11, 2009, in a meaningless regular-season game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, when Bryant received a poor entry pass from Jordan Farmar that ultimately resulted in an avulsion fracture to his right index finger. At the time, the team and Bryant proclaimed it wasn't anything serious. But the events that transpired soon suggested otherwise.
The pain continued to stay in his right index finger. Bryant constantly tinkered with his splint, trying to find the proper balance between protecting his finger and maintaining his ability to grip the ball. His shooting percentage suffered. And the original timetable for when the finger was expected to be fully healed went from six weeks, which Bryant managed to play through, to indefinite, with Bryant later developing arthritis in the knuckle of that right index finger during the postseason.
Bryant's feelings about the injury after the Lakers won the 2010 championship contrasted with his initial statement that "you just get used to it." When asked during his exit interview what injury hurt the most among his assorted dings during the 2009-10 season -- the fractured right index finger, the sprained left ankle, the swollen right knee, the periodic back spasms -- Bryant didn't hesitate with his response. "The finger," he said. "Once we drained the knee, it was fine. Fine enough. The finger though was a constant problem. It was always around."
With the Lakers 2 1/2 weeks away from training camp, Bryant's finger and how it fares is one of the most significant pre-season questions. It will likely determine how he'll play this season: Will his scoring mostly come from attacking the basket, from working the post or from penetrating from behind the perimeter? Will he mostly facilitate by punishing opponents who double team him, feeding Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum inside or creating more spacing for the Lakers' backcourt? Will his finger be something that could drastically affect his chances of capturing a regular-season MVP award? Or is all the worry about his finger soooooo last season?
There might be some answers coming Sept. 25, when, it's safe to presume, we'll ask what kind of treatment Bryant received this off-season for his finger.
For now, all we can say is this: Bryant spent this off-season playing very little basketball. He sat out the 2010 FIBA World Championships, ran his basketball camp, visited China, watched the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, attended the World Basketball Festival in New York City and even abstained from a pick-up game with President Obama. Bryant also received arthroscopic knee surgery and told reporters afterward that he felt good, a sentiment Lakers forward Luke Walton recently shared with Lakers.com's Mike Trudell after observing Bryant at work this off-season.
But not even the team is sure what Bryant's plan involving his right index finger entails.
"He continues to see doctors. I've not heard an update regarding a surgery," Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak told reporters in late July. "As the summer goes on, it’s less and less a possibility as you get closer and closer to training camp."
"Kobe's surgery was done by a physician other than a team physician," Kupchak continued. "That just brings you a little bit further away. After 14 years, we've come to trust Kobe and his medical decisions. We're very in the loop with the type of surgery he had as well as the results of the surgery. We don't worry about Kobe with rehab. He's rehabbing with one of our people right now. One of the people he's working with is one of our most trusted therapists. That's all I know. The surgery went well. It wasn't a major surgery. He's mobile. He's getting therapy every day. We expect him back in training camp."
Whether Bryant returns to training camp with a healthy finger is another story. After suffering the injury, Bryant fought through it and earned Western Conference Player of the Month honors in December. But he aggravated the injury in January, setting off a monthlong stretch when his volume of shots increased but his shooting percentage decreased. In February and March, Bryant played more of a facilitating role and scored through the post so he wouldn't be as susceptible to whacks to the finger. Soon enough, as arthritis developed in the knuckle, Bryant changed his shooting stroke with assistant coach Chuck Person to transfer the pressure on his right index finger to his middle finger and thumb.
As far as the coming season, well, we don't know. The Orange County Register's Kevin Ding wrote this off-season: "The middle knuckle on that critical finger on Bryant’s shooting hand is so debilitated by arthritis after the past season of misuse and overuse that there may be no real way to fix it. Arthritis is not a problem that can just be cleaned up with arthroscopic surgery or wished away with a little rest."
As much as Bryant should be credited for shutting it down this summer, The Times' Mark Heisler noted that the team wished he had done that earlier in the season. As much as Bryant should be lauded for his toughness and resiliency, his stubbornness sometimes meant even more damage to his finger. So, it's an issue that will remain cloudy for some time and one that will surely leave Laker fans split on how Bryant should address it.
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Photo: Bucks guard Carlos Delfino knocks the ball from the grasp of Lakers guard Kobe Bryant in the first half of a game Jan. 10, 2010. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times