Pre-season question of the day: How much will Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol benefit from missing this year's FIBA World Championship?
As soon as the basket went in, Pau Gasol stared dumbfounded. Milos Teodosic's game-winning three-pointer with 3.1 seconds remaining just propelled Serbia past Spain in the FIBA World Championships quarterfinals, and Gasol somehow needed to keep his composure during a live telecast in Istanbul, Turkey.
Aside from Gasol's immediate reaction making for a good photo caption contest, his facial expression suggested many things: Obvious disappointment that his native country couldn't defend its title; reminding himself to keep his composure on air; and curiosity on what would've happened had he played.
Though Team USA reached a much better outcome -- securing its first World Championship since 1994 -- it's not that speculative to say Kobe Bryant pondered many things while watching the games on T.V. There's no photo evidence to show his game-time reactions, but even the most casual observer knows Bryant felt an itching to get out there.
Those feelings are inevitable considering the innate competitiveness of Bryant and Gasol. But leading up to the tournament, neither expressed much regret that they were going to take it easy this summer. After all, they deserved the rest after compiling heavy basketball mileage and absorbing various injuries.
"I understand it's a tough decision to make, but it's best for my body, myself, and, consequently, the teams that I'm a part of," Gasol said during his exit interview. "My body is asking me to relax and recover to be able to continue to play at the level that I'm playing. Otherwise my body is going to break down quicker and I'm going to become a worse player."
Although Bryant hadn't officially decided his plan with Team USA during his exit interview, the Black Mamba himself spoke about the same thing, a concept that usually seems so foreign.
"I've been playing a great deal of basketball," Bryant said. "This summer for me is about getting healthy. I think that will give us the best opportunity to defend our title again. Same thing for Pau. Pau has been going nonstop."
For Gasol, that includes six championship appearances in the last four seasons, including three consecutive NBA Finals, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2009 and 2007 EuroBasket title games and the 2006 FIBA World Championships. For Bryant, that includes three consecutive NBA Finals and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And for both, the rest will ensure a good run for the 2010-11 season, which is a good sign considering they're the Lakers' two top players and have a respectful relationship with each other.
Bryant recently underwent arthroscopic in his right knee, so even if there are still uncertainties regarding his right index finger, I foresee Bryant having the same explosiveness he displayed in the playoffs after draining the swelling in his knee. Before that happened, fans painfully witnessed Bryant with all his might overcome his physical ailments, but with limited success. After the draining, Bryant dropped at least 30 points in 11 of the next 12 games.
Gasol is also a season removed from nursing injuries, sitting out 17 games because of strained left and right hamstrings. Perhaps because of a sign of Gasol's consistency, his only down performances came in a sprinkle of games in February. After missing the first 11 games because of a right hamstring injury, he scored at least 20 points in three of the next five games. When he returned in January from a six-game absence because of a left hamstring injury, Gasol scored at least 20 points in five of the next seven.
Fans likely won't see as many tangible differences in Gasol's play as they will in Bryant's play this season, but the benefits will involve what we all won't see happen. Gasol mentioned to me during the exit interview that his hamstring injuries served as the triggering point for what led him to decide to sit out of this year's FIBA tournament. It's conceivable that, had Gasol kept grinding through, his body could have broken down this upcoming season, which would make it harder for him to bounce back.
And even though Gasol and Bryant had a not-so-physical summer, they still kept their basketball minds sharp. Bryant hosted his basketball camp, traveled to the World Basketball Festival and even attended a pickup game hosted by President Obama. Gasol traveled to India as an NBA ambassador, worked out with a trainer twice a day, hosted his own basketball camp in Spain and watched the FIBA World Championship in Turkey.
So even if Bryant and Gasol didn't go through grueling workouts or played in Turkey, they still remained students of the game. And soon enough, everyone will realize this season that rest was all they needed to pass the test.
-- Mark Medina
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Photos, from top: Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol abstained from the 2010 FIBA World Championships so they could rest from their assorted injuries. A healthy Bryant and Gasol will make the Lakers a dangerous team in the 2010-11 season. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times; Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times