Kobe Bryant isn’t going to let his career end this way, limping off the court with a torn Achilles tendon.
It is going to end on his terns. He would not allow it to be any other way. He will be back. An hour after he limped off the court he was telling the media exactly that.
“I know I can do this,” Bryant said. “It’s fueling me. It’s fueling me. I can feel it already.”
As for when he’ll be back, it will be some time next season (we’ll have a better idea after his surgery but to get a full range of motion and leg strength back on these injuries often takes a year). He’ll almost certainly miss games — and at his age him returning to his current level of play seems unlikely — but you know he’ll be diligent about his recovery. He’ll be back. And when he’s back he’ll be good.
But what do the Lakers do this summer to prepare for next season?
Pretty much what they were already going to do. They don’t have a lot of other options.
First, re-sign Dwight Howard. He’s still the future. He’s still the man you build around for the post-Kobe era, it’s just now that era will include part of next season. The Lakers will offer him a max contract, you can expect him to sign it.
Next, they need to decide what kind of team they will be, what kind of system they will run. Coach Mike D’Antoni came in with how he wanted to play but the Lakers have largely modified away from that as it was clear the personnel on the roster didn’t fit that style. To D’Antoni’s credit they have gotten away from some of what he wanted to do and they run “horns” and some traditional NBA sets in there. With Kobe out do they go to a system that is a lot of Steve Nash with the ball in his hands, running the pick-and-roll with Howard?
This summer Lakers management has to decide what kind of team they want to be, how to tweak the roster to fit that ideal.
The problem is with a max Howard deal in place the Lakers remain hamstrung in trying to reshape the roster because they are so far over the luxury tax line — they are expected to have a payroll in the $100 million range, which under the new system would mean $85 million in taxes on top of it. Kobe alone will make $30 million next season. Even for the Lakers deep pockets with their rich cable deal that is a steep, steep price. It limits the trades they can make and they can only sign free agents for the veteran minimum.
The Lakers however, need to get more athletic on the wings with better defense on the perimeter (particularly while Kobe is out) and they need better depth at the point guard because Steve Blake functions okay as a shooter when Kobe is the ball handler but they now need better ball handlers to play when Steve Nash is sits/is out.
If you’re thinking trade, what do the Lakers have to trade that other teams want? Look at their rotation from Friday night outside Kobe/Howard (and Nash, who they would not move): Steve Blake, Earl Clark (who is a free agent this summer), Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison. On the bench there is Chris Duhon, Devin Ebanks and Jordan Hill and Darius Morris.
There is nothing there you can trade for any real value because those are not players other teams want.
Then there is Pau Gasol.
The Lakers may not move him, they aren’t going to just ship him out for a lowball offer (which is why he wasn’t traded at the deadline). But he is the one player there will be interest in — he has a steep $19 million price tag but it’s the last season of his deal and he is still a very effective scorer in the post. Gasol could help a lot of teams.
What the Lakers will not take back in a deal is long-term contracts — right now the only guys on the books for the summer of 2014 are Steve Nash (for one more year) and the new Dwight Howard deal that would be signed in the summer. The Lakers will reshape the roster in a major way that summer.
And that likely will include Kobe — he wants this to end on his terms. That might mean a season or two after his current deal ends where he can play and show how he came back and could still play at a high level. Kobe would take a steep discount (ala Tim Duncan/Kevin Garnett) to be part of this reworked Lakers roster.
This was all pretty much the plan when Kobe was healthy. It doesn’t change much. But the Lakers could feel very different next season.