By Lyle Spencer
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- From his office above the court at the Lakers' practice facility, general manager Mitch Kupchak peers down and sees the elite athlete he recognizes -- not the guy who, recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, played six games before a fracture in his left knee on Dec. 17 shut him down last season.
On the heels of an invisible 2013-14 campaign that clearly unhinged the Lakers, Kobe Bryant is back to being Kobe Bryant, from Kupchak's observation point. And that is the best news in months for the faithful, whose trust in the purple and gold is being severely tested.
"My window overlooks the court, and he comes in to work out from time to time," Kupchak said. "You would not know he's in his mid-30s. You wouldn't know he hurt his knee and had a torn Achilles. There's no limp. He's got a hop in his step. He's working hard."
There are many who already think Bryant is finished. Last week on NBA TV, Charles Barkley declared, "I'm shoveling dirt on his grave ... I love Kobe Bryant -- he's one of the 10 greatest players ever. But it's over for him and the Lakers."
Kupchak, working in concert with new head coach and former "Showtime" team member Byron Scott, has been too busy trying to mold a competitive team to pay attention to Barkley's familiar rants. Having learned on the job from the master, Jerry West, the power forward-turned-executive trusts his own eyes and instincts.
There are countless questions Kupchak can't answer yet, but the health of the fourth-best scorer in NBA history apparently isn't one of them.
"I'm not worried," Kupchak said. "Kobe looks great. He's had two rough years. The Achilles was a freak thing, and the knee -- I'm not sure anybody can predict that kind of thing.
"He's actually been healthy since May. He's ready, motivated. And he's engaged."
Engaged or enraged, Kobe Bryant still can do things few men in history have done. We saw that in the days immediately preceding the snapping of his Achilles at the Staples Center on April 12, 2013.
Willing his team into the playoffs with performances bordering on the supernatural, Bryant averaged 28.9 points, 8.4 assists and 7.3 rebounds during a 7-1 stretch, playing 45.5 minutes per game. When he blew up the Achilles against the Warriors, Kobe had played 92 consecutive minutes, having gone all 48 while scoring 47 points two nights earlier in Portland.
But Achilles tears have ended NBA careers. A study by Drexel University doctors showed that over a 20-year period ending in 2012, 18 players had ruptured an Achilles on the court. Eleven came back to play, eight for multiple seasons. Seven never played again in the NBA.
Dominique Wilkins, who suffered the injury on Jan. 28, 1992 at age 32, adjusted his game, focusing on his jumper, and came back to average 29.9 points in 1992-93, then 26, 17.8 and 18.2 before retiring after the 1998-99 season. Elton Brand and Maurice Taylor also made productive comebacks.
Isiah Thomas, having already announced his retirement, ruptured his Achilles late in the 1993-94 season and never played again.
Of course, Bryant isn't just dealing with his continued recovery from that 16-month-old surgery. It's the knee too. And then whatever ailment comes next for a 35-year-old with a lot of NBA miles on his body. While there have been few athletes in any sport as resilient and mentally tough as Bryant, it's a lot to ask any player to shoulder such a huge load for his team, while dealing with so many physical ailments.
That's where the addition of Scott comes in. Bryant is delighted that his veteran mentor during his rookie season has assumed the reins from the embattled Mike D'Antoni. This is a move that does more than appease a restless fan base recalling Firin' Byron's marksmanship and defense as Magic Johnson's wingman in the glory years. Scott will be tasked with monitoring Bryant's minutes closely, most likely keeping them in the 35-38 per game range -- whether Kobe likes it or not.
Scott, underrated in Kupchak's view, took New Jersey Nets teams with relatively modest personnel to back-to-back Finals appearances in 2001-02 and 2002-03. He led New Orleans to 56 and 49 wins in consecutive seasons, claiming the 2007-08 NBA Coach of the Year award. His timing was terrible in Cleveland -- LeBron James bolted for Miami shortly after Scott signed in 2010.
But Scott, many of whose views were shaped by Pat Riley in his playing days, believes defense is the foundation of any team's success, and will stress that from day one as he gathers the band of characters Kupchak and ownership have handed him.
Bryant, a basketball savant that even King James learned from when they played together in the 2008 Olympics, will be Scott's defensive conduit, driving home messages of communication, rotation and determination to teammates.
Lacking an intimidating presence in the middle with a relatively undersized front line, the Lakers will pressure the ball, play the passing lanes and use their athleticism to advantage. Bryant, even if he has lost a half-step, can still be a lock-down defender when motivated, and analytics suggest new point guard Jeremy Lin is a better defender than generally perceived.
Small forward Wesley Johnson has the skills to be a shutdown defender; he'll be a Kobe project. Ed Davis can block shots and rebound, and Jordan Hill is a forceful rebounder. Rookie Julius Randle brings an edge to go with impressive tools, and Carlos Boozer can be a physical force inside.
When the summer dreams of luring LeBron or Carmelo Anthony to Hollywood as free agents predictably didn't materialize, the Lakers were left to assemble a roster that would be competitive and, at the same time, leave cap room for free-agent explorations in summers ahead.
"We basically put this team together in a 10-day period," Kupchak said. "There is some continuity but a lot of new faces -- Lin, [rookie guard] Jordan Clarkson, Davis, Boozer, Randle.
"It may take some time offensively to figure it out. What can keep us in games and be a staple early on is the defensive side of the ball. We're going to have to play tough team defense. That's where Byron's focus will be. Byron's got a toughness about him. I think he'll command respect and hold players accountable."
If .500 is the best Scott and Bryant -- part sage, part coach on the floor -- can do with this motley crew, it will exceed expectations of skeptics, such as Sir Charles envisioning the Lakers getting pummeled pillar to post in the stacked Western Conference.
And if Bryant -- 31,700 points in the bank and just 593 away from passing Michael Jordan at No. 3 -- feels good enough to go off on his occasional binges, so be it. The second and third options are up for grabs, with Nick Young, Lin, Steve Nash (if healthy), Boozer and Randle all candidates to generate offense. The Bryant Show, if required, will entertain the faithful and perhaps steal some games.
"He'll be very productive," Kupchak said. "If Kobe wants to score, average a big number, he can do it. He'll know where to go on the court. He'll still make plays that will amaze you, just not as frequently as 10 years ago. You'll see him mid-post, at the elbow. He's going to get fouled. Based on your needs, he can score. I'm not worried about that."
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Lyle Spencer is a contributor to Sports on Earth and has done most of his writing in baseball (at MLB.com) and basketball. His first big scoop was the retirement of UCLA legend John Wooden for the L.A. Herald Examiner, and he recalls with special fondness his time with the "Showtime" Lakers and Dodgers of the 1970s and '80s.