Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant hasn’t played in a meaningful basketball game since last April. While he’s nearing a return from Achilles tendon surgery, it’s not likely that fans can expect to see him back in old form right away.
Bryant participated in five-on-five drills during practice for the first time on Wednesday. According to Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni, Bryant took a step back in his ongoing effort to return to the court.
"It's just like training camp," D'Antoni told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "By the third day, it's tough. And that's what he's kind of going through right now."
With any recovery from major surgery, there are always baby steps followed by regression of some sort. In Bryant’s case, he’s been through seven months of intense rehab, so he’s bound to hit a wall at some point.
D’Antoni went on to say that he wasn’t particularly worried. Bryant was forced to sit out practice on Thursday.
"I think it's just precautionary," D'Antoni said. "I know everybody is eager, but it's going to be a little bit of a process and [we will] make sure he is healthy when he comes back."
Teammate Pau Gasol would love to have Bryant back as quickly as possible, but he too knows that it’s important for Bryant to take a cautious approach.
“Not concerned at all," Gasol said. "I don't know when he's going to play, but if he's not going to play the next couple games, I think it's good for him to get a couple good practices in, take a step off, let's see how that Achilles reacts. Let it calm down, maybe. And then, pick it back up."
Bryant’s absence is certainly felt on the court. Thus far, the Lakers have stumbled to a 5-7 start. Their top scorer, Jodie Meeks, is averaging just 13.7 points per game and they’ve been without the services of star point guard Steve Nash as well, who’s been battling his own set of injuries.
As much as D’Antoni needs Bryant back in the lineup, he also knows he can’t rush his return.
"Just when he's ready, he'll know it," D'Antoni said. "The trainer will know it by looking at him and I'll know it by looking at him. So, I think it's all three of us [sitting] down and trying to figure out when it's the best. We can map it out on the calendar, but you don't know. You go day to day and you figure out where he is today and where he'll be tomorrow, and at some point it looks good and I think everybody will agree and we'll do it.
"We'll just have to hold our horses a little bit and get him back when he's ready to go."
Even when Bryant is healthy enough to return, it’s difficult to expect that he’ll immediately return to form. He’s 35 years old, entering his 18th season and coming off a major injury. The explosiveness that Bryant has possessed for much of his career certainly won’t be there at the outset, and considering his age, it may never fully return.
Having Bryant back in the fold will be good for the Lakers, but to think that he can instantly make them a playoff contender is simply foolhardy. He’ll have limitations on the court upon his return and will likely have to make certain adjustments.
The return of Bryant and Steve Nash won’t cure all of the Lakers’ issues, that’s something that management will have to deal with. So fans need to understand that, while Kobe’s return to the court will help, it simply won’t be enough.