Los Angeles is the city of stars, but on Friday night it lost the biggest in the sports galaxy.
In the dwindling moments of a crucial game against the Golden State Warriors, Kobe Bryant attempted to drive past defender Harrison Barnes (a move that Bryant says he has made “a million times”) and collapsed to the ground. At that point Bryant knew that he had torn his achilles and rubbed that region as if he had a magic healing ability. Unfortunately for him, he isn’t Wolverine from the X-Men comic book series.
Seeing how Bryant had already gotten up from two apparent injuries during the second half of the game and is known for his toughness, it didn’t seem like a big deal to fans as he limped to the bench. Then, after a timeout, Bryant stepped to the free throw line and made both shots to tie the game at 109. The Lakers were then forced to intentionally foul in order to stop play and get him out of the game. Now this was an unfamiliar feeling to Laker fans.
Shortly after, the Lakers had won the game, and Bryant was talking to reporters in the locker room. The normally calculated Bryant spoke to the press in a way rarely seen before—from the heart and with what seemed to be tears welling in his eyes. This was a man that gave everything to his team, yet whose body had rebelled against him.
Now this is the Lakers reality: one win away from the playoffs but without their biggest star for the rest of this season and a big chunk of 2013-14. Fans, reporters and analysts all searched for someone to put the blame on.
I say look no further than Laker Head Coach Mike D’Antoni.
Bryant is 34 years old and was playing in his 17th season. He is a dinosaur compared to the average player age of 26.7. Despite his age, D’Antoni played Bryant—a player past his athletic prime—over 40 minutes per game in the last seven contests. Until his injury, Bryant had played every minute of the game against the Warriors.
I’m no doctor, but there seems to be a correlation between the amount of minutes NBA stars play and their frequency of injury. As players log more minutes, their body becomes more fatigued. Also, players may be so focused on the games that they make less of an effort to stretch, warm-up before and cool down after games.
The biggest example that comes to mind is Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose tearing his ACL in the first game of the playoffs last season. Rose averaged over 35 minutes in the season and still has yet to play in a game since, almost a full year after his injury.
Boston Celtics star Rajon Rondo also fell victim to the dreaded ACL tear in late January, as he played over 35 minutes in each of his last five games.
One common thread between the injuries of Bryant, Rose and Rondo is that they all occurred in late game scenarios. All three pushed their bodies too far and fell victim to season-ending injuries. This is something that all coaches should be more cautious of.
You would think that D’Antoni would be a little more aware of these types of risks as he ran into a similar situation when he was head coach of the New York Knicks. His star power forward Amare Stoudemire played substantial minutes for him and suffered different injuries that Stoudemire still battles today. Stoudemire played a career-high 36.8 minutes per game in the 2010-11 season.
On the night that Bryant got injured, ESPN’s Bill Simmons tweeted: “Mike D ran Kobe into the ground like he did with Amare 2 years ago…”
Many that are trying to defend D’Antoni’s use of Bryant argue that the player chose to play long minutes. To this I simply say, Mike D’Antoni is the coach. Not only does he have control over when a player plays, but also it is in the coach’s best interest to think of the big picture by managing the roster to prevent injuries.
What I find to be most shocking is that Bryant hurt two different parts of his body on two completely separate plays in the game just minutes before the achilles injury. In the third quarter of the game, Bryant hit the floor on a drive to the basket and gripped his knee, wincing in pain. Then just four minutes later he made a spin move and limped away as he had rolled his ankle.
Sometimes the coach of a team has the tough decision of having to save a star player from himself. In this case, D’Antoni cowered from utilizing that power.
Now the Lakers are on the precipice of making a playoff run without their top star for the first time in 17 years, but it could have been avoided if “Yes Man” D’Antoni actually did his job.