EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The marvels of modern medicine have nothing on the splendor and miracle of aviation. For example, Kobe Bryant arrived in time for the first day of Laker training camp after flying overnight from Dubai, where he coached a celebrity basketball game. His repaired Achilles won't allow him to travel on the basketball court, though, for a while longer. This recovery won't be an overnight sensation.
There's no timetable for his return on the tendon he tore way back in late April. Even with daily rehab -- his therapist traveled everywhere with him this summer -- it could take another month, or two, or maybe at least one holiday before he breaks a sweat. There's no rush, and besides, why should there be?
You mean, hurry back so Kobe can look off Steve Blake? So he can find Chris Kaman, the replacement for Dwight Howard? So he can beat Pau Gasol back from knee injury? So he can help 39-year-old Steve Nash cross the street?
What exactly is the urgency?
These are indeed strange times for Kobe and the Lakers, who find themselves going nowhere fast for the first time in a decade. There's no championship sizzle here, no talk of being a contender, not even a boast about being the best team in Los Angeles. At best, they are underdogs, at worst, they'll find themselves in the dog pound, preparing to be euthanized in the offseason when everyone except Nash will be off the payroll. So, to repeat, why should Kobe feel any pressure to beat a timetable when he, and even the Lakers, would be in better shape if he takes as much time as possible?
Really, if Kobe pulled a Derrick Rose and shut it down for a season, what would be the terrible consequences of that, if any?
As much as any lengthy Kobe absence or a complete wash might help the Lakers land a high draft pick and perhaps their next star next summer, it's a pipe dream. This is Kobe we're talking about, a high-strung competitor even in his 18th NBA season, someone who said Saturday: "My goal is to play tonight."
And so, the folks paying $2,000 a pop for courtside seats at the Staples Center can rest easy. They'll get Kobe at some point, maybe too late into the season to salvage it, though. All Kobe can do is keep the Lakers good enough to win 40-43 games in a very tough, deep Western Conference and be on the cusp of the playoffs, which is dead man's land in the NBA, where mediocrity is a worse fate than winning 20 games.
You tell me what's more important to the franchise: sweating out the eighth seed and getting bounced in the first round by the Clippers, or crashing hard enough for a lottery pick in a rich draft and preserving Kobe for a few more years?
In a perfect world, the Lakers would opt (secretly, of course) for the latter. This way, they'd ensure themselves a healthy Kobe for his next -- and most likely last -- contract extension, and have him around to groom his successor and have plenty of room on the cap to at least give LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony something to think about next summer.
In Kobe's world, however, he's staring at a challenge that is too irresistible to pass up.
"I'm anxious to play and demonstrate how to overcome this type of injury and help my team," he said. "A lot of guys who've had this type of injury came back just fine and even won championships. I know what we're capable of doing and I feel comfortable with that. There's no timetable for me. It's about being smart about it, being patient with it, just seeing how it does right now. When I get back on the court I'll be ready. I don't need to be 100 percent. I don't think I've ever played a season at 100 percent. Seventy-eight will be fine."
Yes, 78 percent of Kobe is better than most players, even at age 35. Remember, for long stretches last season, while Howard and Nash struggled to stay healthy, Kobe carried the Lakers. He averaged 27.3 points and was about the only reason to watch them. His meticulous attention to physical conditioning, his desire and his ego won't allow him to play at a lower level.
"There are some things I worry about," said coach Mike D'Antoni. "Kobe Bryant isn't one of them."
But look: The Lakers have holes at power forward, small forward and on the bench. Point guard could be an issue unless you believe Nash, the oldest player in the NBA at the moment, is still a threat and can hold up an entire season. And there's no set date for Kobe's return; even when he does suit up, he may need a transitional period to get up to speed and meet the demands of game situations.
It's the kind of scenario Howard wanted no part of, a picture of imperfection that made him flee to Houston despite the Lakers resorting to begging him to stay. Kobe said he had the feeling Howard wasn't re-signing with the Lakers soon after meeting with the team in July, and when asked whether he'd gotten over the Howard snub by now, Kobe said: "Honestly man, I really don't give a damn. It is what it is."
In Chicago, there's a city waiting to rekindle its love affair with Rose, who tested the patience of the people by skipping the season. In Oklahoma City, the Thunder feel they'll be ready to return to the Finals with Russell Westbrook back from injury. October is shaping up as the Month of the Comeback, where several other players will shake off the rust caused by injury to give their teams an edge and in some cases, a significant boost.
In Los Angeles, there's also a sense of anticipation about Bryant's recovery and heavy curiosity over his ability to regain quickness and burst at his age. But that's where the interest ends.
The best thing for Kobe to do about an Achilles injury that normally needs a year to heal is to take his sweet time. For the first and only time in his career, the Lakers are better off without him than with him.