Kobe Bryant needs to rest this offseason
There Kobe Bryant sat before a crowded room during his exit interview, acknowledging what became a glaring reality that contributed to the Lakers' failed playoff run: "The biggest thing was the fatigue factor. A lot of times guys become burdened by things that you're normally not burdened by."
Lakers fans saw it in nauseating frustration, including Pau Gasol's mental exhaustion, Ron Artest's declining athleticism and Matt Barnes' limited right knee. But it was also noticeable with Bryant. He hobbled on one leg after twisting his left ankle in the first-round series against New Orleans. His energy level depleted late in playoff games as he uncharacteristically failed to deliver. And he stayed out of most practices altogether because of the little cartilage he had in his surgically repaired right knee.
So with a prolonged lockout ahead, this would be the perfect opportunity for Bryant to rest, affording him enough time to receive any needed treatment to improve his old bones. It would be a welcome break for Bryant to stay as far away from the basketball court as possible because the Lakers will need him at his best once he steps on it when the season starts.
Bryant may have avoided playing competitively overseas in the first month of the lockout, while teasing the Turkish basketball team, Besiktas, along the way. But he also revealed he remains open to the venture, going so far as to say, "I'll play anywhere."
To which I say: Why?
To put more pressure on the NBA to reach a new collective bargaining agreement? To promote Bryant's global brand and pick up some unneeded money along the way? To satisfy his insatiable basketball craving? Those are all practical reasons that mean very little compared with what's more important for Bryant: squeezing out as many NBA championships possible before his three-year, $83.5-million deal with the Lakers expires after the 2013-2014 season. It's conceivable the Lakers could sign him for additional seasons, but Bryant would seriously jeopardize his body and his ability to extend his career should he play overseas in China, Turkey, Europe or anywhere else that has a basketball team.
"This is a good summer for me to train and get strong," Bryant said. "I didn't have a chance to grind [last season] like I would like to. This summer, I have that chance."
Yes, Bryant has that chance, and he already took advantage by having an innovative procedure performed on his right knee in Germany. But it's unclear what exactly that will do and how his knee will respond. Barnes can boast all he wants that witnessing Bryant's 360-degree dunk at his summer camp convinced him that the Lakers star is fully healthy. Derek Fisher can tout all he wants that his initial skepticism about Bryant's knee vanished as soon as he saw him play in a pair of exhibition games two weeks ago in the Philippines. That's the equivalent of a mechanic praising the work after a single dent has been removed from a damaged car.
As much as Bryant knows his body, he operates by a standard on whether he can play, not by what doing so will do to his long-term health. Playing overseas would delay him from dealing with the other various "dents" in his knee, something the Lakers can't fully convey to him because lockout rules prevent team officials from communicating with players and FIBA rules allow players to compete overseas so long as they return to the NBA once the season begins. Bryant should feel free to go on barnstorming tours in which he'll appear in meaningless and marketing-driven exhibition games. He should feel free to keep himself active and strengthen his body. He should feel free to continue his summer travels so he still feels mentally engaged. But until his 16th NBA season starts, he shouldn't feel free to add to the 1,311 total games, 48,310 total minutes and 25,568 shots he's had in his career. Sorry, his explanation for wanting to stay active just doesn't cut it.
"When you're older, it's a lot harder to shut down the engines and then regenerate that all over again," Bryant said. "It’s easier to stay consistent so you never fully lose it."
That quote only reminded me of something I read years ago in Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," a book that ignores sappy self-help advice and cuts to the practical core on how to lead a balanced life. In his chapter, "Sharpening the Saw," Covey illustrates an anecdote that truly applies to Bryant's mindset on basketball in the passage below:
"Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.
'What are you doing?' you ask.
'Can't you see?' comes the impatient reply. 'I'm sawing down this tree.'
'You look exhausted!' you exclaim. 'How long have you been at it?'
Over five hours,' he returns, 'and I'm beat. This is hard work.'
'Well, why don't you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?' you inquire. 'I'm sure it would go a lot faster.'
'I don't have time to sharpen the saw,' the man says emphatically. 'I'm too busy sawing!'"
Bryant has illustrated that impatience by refusing to have surgery on his arthritic index finger. At this point, full recovery from such a procedure may not even be possible because of the increased damage, but in any case, he's avoided the operation in case the league reaches a new CBA in time for a full season.
He showed more impatience last postseason with his refusal to get an MRI on his sprained left knee after hobbling to the team bus following the Lakers' Game 4 loss to New Orleans. Even if he later assuaged fears and provided a perfect Hollywood script with a dominating Game 5 performance, any short-term gain clearly vanished as he lacked full speed on his legs for the rest of the playoffs.
And now he wants to play overseas?
Let Bryant invoke the wisdom of Tex Winter to indirectly explain why playing overseas is a bad idea: "He used to say fatigue makes cowards of all men."
Certainly, Bryant's not a coward. He's the complete opposite. But by playing overseas, he would increase the chances that he would fall into the fate Winter described. Don't believe me? Then watch the 2011 NBA playoffs.
-- Mark Medina
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Upper photo: Kobe Bryant goes up for a reverse dunk during an exhibition game against Filipino players in Quezon City on July 23. Credit: Dennis M. Sabangan / EPA
Lower photo: Bryant arrives at a stadium in China on July 16. Credit: Joe Tan / Reuters