Lakers demonstrate this weekend season-wide delicate balancing act of maintaining health and sharp play
It was only three years ago when Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant sat down to discuss something that's become associated with Allen Iverson.
Bryant was just about to enter his 12th season and Jackson wanted to make clear the Lakers' star should have concerns beyond winning a championship and ensuring the team built enough of a supporting cast around him to secure that goal. That's because there was another ingredient that could very well determine the number of rings Bryant ultimately wears.
"The issue about getting older is about containing your leg strength and your ability to play due to that," Jackson recalled telling Bryant. "You're only going to have issues so practices are going to have to reach a point of agreement on this and I'm going to give you liberty to pick and choose how you want to practice so we can do this the right way."
That discussion suddenly came up into conversation because of revelations that weren't really revelations regarding the fact Bryant frequently has limited his practices this season, opting out of conditioning and full-court scrimmages and resorting to weight lifting, shooting drills and pre-game walk throughs. Jackson and Bryant both agreed that keeping him healthy bodes more importance than any lost chemistry among teammates.
"This is my 15th year. I don't really need to practice to be honest," Bryant said during training camp and has since logged 1,058 regular-season games in 36,608 minutes and 198 postseason games in 7,809 minutes. You just work on the stroke of your shot. That being said, I love practicing."
The Lakers mostly have stuck with that plan this season, with Jackson saying he kept Bryant out of full practices with exception to when the team had multiple days between games. But with the Lakers' (26-11) recently sluggish play contributing to a third place standing in the West behind San Antonio (30-6) and Dallas (26-11), the team changed course. Bryant played with the team two days before the Lakers' embarrassing Christmas Day loss to Miami, which prompted him to return to practice and "kick some..." as he put it. He's been practicing since then in hopes to jumpstart the Lakers, which enter Sunday's game against New York with a three-game winning streak, despite leaving his knee vulnerable to further damage.
"Do I look worried?" said Bryant, though he told The New York Post's Peter Vecsey that he has "very little cartilage under my right knee cap, it’s almost bone on bone." "Did we win last year? My knee last year was the size of a balloon. I'm not that concerned about it. I've just got to be smart."
That's been the crux of the Lakers' season so far. They've tried maintaining a fine line with mixed results between taking all the precautionary steps for a veteran-laden team to be healthy enough come playoff time while hoping any lost on-practice chemistry and drop in the standings won't prove too significant. But the Lakers' 101-97 victory Friday over the New Orleans featured a visual reminder of how delicate that balancing act can become.
Lakers forward Lamar Odom entered the game with a sore left shoulder and acknowledged uncertainty on how it would affect his game. It turned out not much. He scored 17 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and included signature moves such as a cross-court pass, behind the back pass and aggressive drives to the basket that proved to Jackson that Odom's shoulder is "not that bad."
Other Lakers weren't so lucky.
Lakers forward Matt Barnes will be out for several weeks after tearing his lateral meniscus in his right knee after landing off-balance after pursuing a rebound (Barnes tweeted to expected eight weeks of recovery, though that's not an official estimation). Lakers guard Steve Blake sprained his left ankle after missing a layup in the third quarter, but The Times' Mike Bresnahan reported Blake appeared in a practice jersey on Saturday and didn't seem to have any "lingering effects."
"Players have to be supported by their reserves," Jackson said. "We have to have a reserve unit out there that complements our team."
The two aforementioned injuries didn't result from aggravated injuries, but it still provided an example of the tight-rope the Lakers are trying to walk.
"Sometimes you have to expect injuries in pro sports," said Odom, who described himself as a "gladiator" for playing through a sprained left shoulder last season from mid-February through the postseason. "Your last play could be your last play. Hopefully our depth will buy us some time."
But you only have to see how Bryant and Jackson have changed their original training camp stance regarding practice to know they've taken a different approach in weighing maintaining health versus maintaining sharp play.
Bryant on whether his decision to sit out of practice will hurt chemistry, specifically regarding free agent acquisitions Blake and Barnes: "They've played against me for years. Blake knows where I go in the post. Matt too. They know how to play with me."
Jackson on giving limited practice time to the team, including several days off to Bryant, Odom, Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol: "We've found with veteran players it's negative return."
Bryant on why he's practicing now: "It's just listening to your body and I do a pretty good job of that. Now I felt was the time to crank it up and sacrifice a little bit of the swelling and knee. We need to get some of the intensity back."
Jackson on why he held a 2 1/2 hour practice last week that emphasized plenty of conditioning drills: "The idea is to get them through the season in the best possible shape in the best possible placing in the conference. "But we don't have a lot of room to make things up. We have a home schedule right now and we've lost games on our home floor. We have to make hay right now when we can. It's important for us to finish in a position where we at least have home court advantage ... in the first round of the playoffs, for sure. Those things are important for us and we understand that."
The Lakers have last season to follow as a model. After suffering swelling in his right knee during the 2010 postseason, Bryant had it drained and spent very little of that time practicing. That included a week-long stretch between the West semifinals series against Utah and West conference series against Phoenix where Bryant sat entirely. He followed with a 40-point performance in the Lakers' Game 1 victory over the Suns in the West Finals.
"My legs benefitted a whole lot," Bryant said at the time regarding his decision to rest his knee, which has had three operations. "I was able to take some time off and just get stronger, get my legs stronger, my upper body stronger, it was almost like a training camp all over again. I didn't do much on the court, but I was in the weight room doing what I needed to do."
The Lakers adopted a similar strategy to Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who also sat out for most of the postseason after suffering a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. Whether or not you agree with Bynum's decision to hold off surgery until July 28 after attending the World Cup, the Lakers took a cautious approach with his return. In one respect, Bynum's gradual rehab has correlated to the Lakers' 5-1 record since his return to the starting lineup. In another, his prolonged rehab has directly correlated to Gasol's decline in play, with a heavy-load of minutes trickling into more passive play even since Bynum's return. Yet, Bynum held the opposite perspective on the health vs. practice issue.
"We have to stay healthy obviously, but we also have to practice," Bynum said. "I think practice is more important. We have to be able to play together out there on the court. The only place to do that off the actual floor is in practice."
The Lakers managed to win a 2010 title without much practice from both Bryant and Bynum, however, meaning the team may very well resort to the original script if they assume a cushion in the Western Conference standings.
"[Bryant] manages it very well," said Jackson, who's also had veteran players in Bill Cartwright, John Paxson and Ron Harper sit out for most of practice. "That's important that he's got the ability to do that. It's been an issue since last year. We monitored it all the way through the playoffs. Surprisingly, we came out on top."
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Photo: All-Stars Kobe Bryant (24) and Pau Gasol (16) give the Lakers plenty of firepower on offense, but each is aging fast and along with their teammates might lack the defense and team speed to win a third consecutive NBA title. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant looks to pass to teammate Lamar Odom (not pictured) after driving into the lane against New Orleans in the fourth quarter Friday night. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times
Photo: The tape around Kobe Bryant's injured index finger unravels as he makes a pass on a drive into the lane against New Orleans on Friday night at Staples Center. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times