Lakers GM on Kobe returning from injury: ‘I don’t think he’s retiring’

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Kobe Bryant underwent successful shoulder surgery on Wednesday, which means that a best-case scenario won’t have him ready for action until the start of the Lakers 2015-16 season.

The rehabilitation period is expected to be nine months — an eternity for any athlete, but a torturous timetable for one of Bryant’s competitiveness.

This marks the third straight season that Bryant has had cut short prematurely due to injury, and considering just how well he knows that the end of his playing days are very near, it’s worth wondering if he wants to go through yet another grueling physical challenge, just to make it back to play the game at less than a level that he may deem to be acceptable.

Most, however, expect Bryant to be back for the final year of his contract in Los Angeles — one that will pay him $25 million for a single season. That includes the team’s general manager, Mitch Kupchak, who confirmed as much while speaking to reporters on Thursday.

From Baxter Holmes of ESPN Los Angeles:

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said he fully expects Kobe Bryant to play next season after the Lakers star suffered a recent season-ending shoulder injury.

“I don’t think he’s retiring,” Kupchak said Thursday after Lakers’ shootaround. “He said he’s looking forward to training camp. That’s what we expect.” …

And when asked what the Lakers could do to help Bryant play out the final year of his contract, Kupchak said, “I think a big key will be [that] we have to improve the talent level on the team.”

He added, “As you get older and you experience injuries in this league — and he’s played what will be 20 years — it’s difficult to play when you’re going to lose three or four games or five games.

“When you’re winning games, it’s a lot easier to get ready to play and play through aches and pains. To me, a big part of Kobe’s contribution next year is if we can improve this team during the offseason.”

The Lakers have resisted a full-fledged rebuild in these down years, and for good reason. Los Angeles is not a market that can sustain multiple years of bottoming out in hopes of acquiring transcendent talent through the draft; it needs superstar talent to sell those high-priced luxury suites and courtside seats, even if the wins are slow to come.

The cap space will be available this summer, in case the team can convince star-level free agents (or even some second-tier guys) to come to Los Angeles. An improved roster would certainly help to re-energize Kobe for what may be his final year as a professional, but either way, most of us expect him to be back regardless of the team that Kupchak is able to put around him.