Russell Westbrook is back, raucously. He shouldn't play any other way. Solely for aesthetic considerations, he should have stayed out until mid-February if it meant he wasn't yet ready to exert himself like he was exacting revenge upon the sport of basketball itself. He's still missing a few familiar components of his game -- for instance, his ball-handling is uncharacteristically sloppy -- but the verve is there, as well as the aggressive lines he carves with his movements. There are players who make the game look easy and those who make it look like it urgently means something. Russell Westbrook is the latter. He'll fight you with crossovers.
If Westbrook's on-court demeanor is at all indicative of his mentality while rehabbing an injury, it makes sense he's playing again, before almost anyone thought he would be. It's not that his body healed itself through sheer force of will, but he's back because he feels at least close to normal and wants to play badly enough not to care if he isn't. Whatever the status of his newly repaired knee, he looks great, which is hopefully an indication that's he's fully healed. I haven't heard any grumblings from Thunder management about how they wish he would have waited another month. Unless Russ is in a heap sometime next week, with Serge Ibaka crying out "Why, Sam Presti?! If only you had delayed his timetable!" this is probably a feel-good story about a physical freak getting healthy ahead of schedule.
Irksomely, returns from serious injury are often more fraught than Westbrook's. It's something that tests the uneasy triangular relationship between player, management, and fanbase. We saw this last season when Derrick Rose seemingly held himself out of Chicago's doomed playoff run, and the Bulls left Rose out to dry, chatting to reporters about how agile he looked in practice, hinting that the former MVP might return at one point or another when Rose obviously didn't want to. Actually, "didn't want to" is not the appropriate phrase here. The guy tore up his knee and didn't feel comfortable torquing and twisting the hell out of it -- Rose, like Westbrook, plays fast and violently -- for a team that wasn't going to win a title anyway. Instead of releasing an unequivocal statement that Rose would not be back until next October, the Bulls took a passive-aggressive approach, which further fueled growing anti-Rose sentiment among Chicagoans. Derrick Rose was made to seem weak. Fathom the incorrectness of that notion.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Cavaliers have treated lower-body injury connoisseur Andrew Bynum with extreme care. They're benching him on back-to-backs and playing him in either one or two extended stretches per game. The logic behind this is that the Cavs are allowing Bynum to recapture his rhythm in the post and acclimate himself on the defensive end without overwhelming his body. It's an approach that's easy to understand and thus easy to praise. The discussion around Bynum is also pitched considerably lower because we don't know what Bynum will be once he fully recovers, and because the Cavs are in the midst of a season not necessarily without stakes, but certainly with considerably lower ones than the Bulls had last year or the Thunder do this year.
Kobe Bryant's situation is unique in that we have no idea when he'll return, but knowing Kobe, the decision will be almost entirely his own. If there ever was anyone in the Lakers organization who could tell Kobe what to do, Kobe has long since banished that person to whatever California's version of the Siberian tundra is. (So that unfortunate so-and-so is working for the Kings now, probably.) There seems to be a loud conversation going on that Kobe should take most or all of the year off, and the Lakers should be purposefully terrible in order to obtain a top-five pick in the upcoming draft.
This is a proposition the team should absolutely be thinking about, but what they think is irrelevant because their fate is tied directly to the will of a guy whose problem-solving approaches are A) to play basketball as hard as humanly possible and B) only a coward would have a plan B. Kobe will be back when he wants to come back, probably ahead of schedule, whether his return conflicts with the Lakers' best interests or otherwise. There will be no tussle between Kobe and management because Kobe either is the management or operates entirely outside its dominion.
The most famous and famously sad injury comeback saga in recent years is Brandon Roy's. The story goes that Roy wanted to play on an obviously-not-totally-intact knee during the 2010 playoffs, and in doing so, effectively ended his career. The thing about severe injuries is we tend to narrativize them so as to make sense of them, though that narrativization doesn't make our conclusions valid. Each player's physical makeup is snowflake-like, and it's difficult to draw a definitive link between decisions and outcomes.
Perhaps Roy's knee was going to betray him at the outset of the 2011-12 season anyway, or his wrongheaded playoff bravery hastened the deterioration of cartilage in his joints. Regardless of the gap between correlation and causation, the conventional wisdom is the Blazers should have stepped in and forbid Roy from playing. This seemed, both at the time and in retrospect, to be the smart call. Why further endanger a fragile star's career for an outside shot at winning a playoff series? For all the paternalism that exists in professional sports, management often seems reluctant to take injury-related decisions out of a player's hands, to look after him when he can't or won't look after himself.
This might sound like unconvincing humanistic hogwash to those who conceive of sports as A Business, Gentlemen and completely misinterpreted the moral standing of Vince Vaughn's character in Swingers. Let me put it another way: Tending toward prudency when bringing a player back from injury doesn't need to be about compassion or caring for one's employees. It also benefits the people who do the hiring and firing.
From the Blazers' perspective, it was reckless to allow Roy to play not because it might have ruined his career and make Roy personally miserable, but because it had the potential to create a temporary salary cap headache and cost Portland its franchise player. What the Cavs are doing with Bynum, as an example, is both kind to the athlete and a form of asset optimization. If they can successfully rehab the former Laker to something approaching what he was when he was wearing forum blue and gold, that $12 million per year they're paying him is a steal. If he blows out his knee again due to a too-strenuous workload, they've wasted their time and money.
We've had the discussion a lot recently, about how NFL players' bodies are not their own. It's a particularly egregious problem in football, but it's applicable across all sports where the money is significant and the fans are visible. Baseball seems to be the only sport where the predominant thinking is you protect a player -- pitchers, usually -- from his own possibly destructive will to play. The NFL has its concussion protocols, which are murky enough, but everyone on the field is playing through some sort of pain, to the detriment of their bodies, careers and sometimes, lives. Because one player can make such a profound impact in the NBA, there are very few teams who overrule guys who want to play hurt, and, as we saw in Rose's case, some provide faintly threatening encouragement about how they know such-and-such is coming along as fast as he can, but, jeez, we could really use him out there.
Shaquille O'Neal is famous for having said, with regard to his postponing a toe surgery until the eve of the 2002-03 season, "I got hurt on company time, so I'll rehab on company time." Shaq realized he held all the power. The team and Lakers fans got upset, but he was the best player in the league and figured no one could tell him what to do. It was selfish -- a lot of post-mortems of Shaq's career suggest he wasn't a great teammate -- but even blatant self-interest and laziness on the part of a star player makes more sense than a coach or GM pushing a player to return before he's ready, in a way that might imperil both the player's career and the team's ambitions. In that quote, Shaq asserts that his body is his own. If it's not admirable, it's a least a little bit enlightened.