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NBA Saturday: Will Kobe Bryant Return to Form?

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Will Kobe Bryant Return to Form?

“You can always just be average or do what’s normal. I’m not in this to do what’s normal. It’s a decision you’ve got to make if you want to accomplish anything that’s significant and have a serious impact. You’ve got to make those sacrifices. You have to make that choice. I made that choice a long time ago.” – Kobe Bryant

That’s what Bryant says in the trailer for his new documentary, which is titled “Kobe Bryant’s Muse.” The short trailer shows Bryant going through a rigorous workout and he’s clearly determined to bounce back in the 2014-15 NBA season.

A torn Achilles prematurely ended Bryant’s 2012-13 campaign and then a fractured left kneecap ended his comeback after just six games in the 2013-14 season, so it’s been awhile since we’ve seen The Black Mamba in elite form.

KobeBryantInsideImage1He’s hoping to change that soon. Bryant has spent this offseason training hard, determined to silence his critics who say that he has nothing left in the tank. At 36 years old, Bryant knows that his career is winding down and that he only has a few more years of basketball left in him, but he’s optimistic that he can return to form and still be one of the league’s stars before he walks away from the sport for good.

Bryant has two years remaining on his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he intends to dominate every time he steps on the court during those two seasons. That’s the only way Bryant knows how to approach the game that he loves.

“I’m going to max [my last two years] out too, to do whatever I can,” Bryant said in an in-depth interview with Sports Illustrated. “Leave no stone unturned, no water left in the sponge.”

Bryant acknowledges that he has certain physical limitations at this point in his career, but he doesn’t believe those will affect his overall productivity.

“There are certain things that my body can’t do that I used to be able to do, and you have to be able to deal with those,” Bryant said. “First, you have to be able to figure out what those are. Last year when I came back, I was trying to figure out what changed. And that’s a very hard conversation to have.

“So when I hear the pundits and people talk, saying, ‘Well, he won’t be what he was.’ Know what? You’re right! I won’t be. But just because something evolves, it doesn’t make it any less better than it was before. I’ll be sharper. Much sharper. Much more efficient in areas. I’ll be limited in terms of what you see me do, versus a couple years ago. But very, very methodical, very, very purposeful.”

In an effort to further evolve his game and make up for those physical limitations, Bryant has been studying fellow 36-year-old Paul Pierce and is focused on being “more efficient” going forward.

Many people don’t realize the hard work that Bryant puts in during the summer and the season in order to stay on top of his game. He is one of the hardest working players in the NBA. His all-night workouts are legendary and there’s nothing scarier than a motivated Kobe.

Right now, it’s safe to say that Bryant is hungry, after suffering two serious injuries and watching the Lakers finish last season with a franchise-worst record of 27-55. As if he didn’t have enough fuel in his fire, ESPN recently released a list of the top shooting guards in the NBA and Bryant didn’t even make the top 10. Instead, he was listed as an honorable mention, alongside two-guards like Danny Green, Wes Matthews and J.R. Smith.

Meanwhile, Bryant just continues to work and prepare for the season.

“It’s the journey,” Bryant said. “These are the difficult times. I think it’s important to show that. Because it’s very easy for the public to look in October and November and say, ‘Oh, Kobe’s back to the way he was.’ Kids look at that and say, ‘It was just voilà!’  No, it wasn’t just voilà. It wasn’t.

“It was a lot of self-doubt and self-conversations and coming up with a plan, a strategy, trying to find the best people in their fields, nutrition and training and bringing them in and coming up with a plan and working at it day by day. It’s the journey. The journey excites me. I like doing the work. This is my passion. Love doing it. It’s not a job to me. And that’s 90 percent of it.”

Ask any of Bryant’s opponents and they believe he’s going to be back in superstar form in the 2014-15 season. They know better than to bet against Bryant. Tony Allen and James Harden believe that Bryant will be back with a vengeance and ready to put the Lakers on his shoulders, as he has done so many times in the past.

“Even 75 percent Kobe, you got to be wary of,” Allen told SI. “I’m not playing him any different. … He’s the closest thing to Michael Jordan in my era. His game is limitless. Not just a slasher or a shooter. He’s gonna get his. There’s no saying, ‘You’re going to stop Kobe.’ You got to not get discouraged.”

“I want to know what he’s going to come back like; I know he’s been working,” Harden told ThePostGame. “We talked a few times and he’s ready. He’s 20-year-old Kobe [again]. It should be a crazy environment. I’m ready for the upcoming season, it should be a good one.”

Allen and Harden may be right. Keep in mind, before tearing his Achilles in 2012-13, Bryant was having a monster season in which he averaged 27.3 points, 6.0 assists, 5.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals. His efficiency rating was an impressive 23.1, which was ranked ninth-best among all NBA players. He was incredibly productive and didn’t seem to be showing any signs of decline.

KobeBryantInsideOnly2The question is, can he return to that level of play after these injuries? One of the worst things about an Achilles injury is that it makes the body vulnerable to many other injuries. Just ask Chauncey Billups. The veteran point guard hasn’t been the same player since he tore his Achilles with the Los Angeles Clippers back in 2012, mainly because various other injuries kept nagging him long after his Achilles was healed.

“The thing that held me back a lot last season was my peroneal tendon on the side of my foot and bottom of my Achilles,” Billups told InsideSoCal.com last November. “That is what ailed me. My Achilles was fine. My Achilles,  I had no issues. I had a successful rehab with that. It was other things with that peroneal tendon that set me back and enabled me to play 20 something games. It was no issue for me. It wasn’t the Achilles at all.

“I think it was all [related]. You have so much time off from that foot and that side of your body. Of course your leg is not as strong and your left leg. Mine wasn’t that strong as my right leg when I first came back. You have to deal with that and compensating a little bit because it’s not as strong. That’s probably what led to my peroneal tendon being overworked. That’s how I can relate those. It all stemmed from my Achilles.”

Bryant’s health will obviously determine just how productive he can be. He’s hoping that his injuries are behind him, so he can walk away from the game on his own terms rather than being too hurt to continue playing.

In the past, Bryant had said that these last two years would be his final seasons in the NBA. However, now he admits that he could change his mind and he’s leaving open the possibility of continuing his career beyond this current contract.

“Yeah, if something inside of me changes and I want to play some more, and go after it some more… yeah [I’ll keep playing],” Bryant said. “But where I sit right now, I don’t know if I want to do that.”

As long as Bryant is able to play at a high level, he’ll likely be on the court. He’s unsure how long he’ll continue playing, but it’s hard to imagine Bryant retiring if he can still contribute to a team since basketball is his life and he’s so obsessed with the competition.

As one general manager told Sports Illustrated: “You know how it’s been hard for Jordan in retirement? It’s going to be way worse to be Kobe. He has fewer friends and the same competitive drive. At least MJ likes to golf and play cards.”

Over the final years of Bryant’s career, one thing is certain: Bryant is going to push his teammates and never hold back. He expects them to work just as hard as he does and his expectations are always lofty (and sometimes unrealistic). For example, Bryant is entering this season with championship aspirations, despite the fact that the Lakers would be lucky to make the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference with their roster as currently assembled. But that’s just how Bryant is and he’s not shying away from it. He says that his title within the franchise is ‘asshole in chief’ and it’s something he embraces.

“You can’t afford to placate people,” Bryant said. “You can’t afford to do that. You’re a leader. You’re not here to be a social butterfly. You’re here to get them to the promised land. A lot of people shy away from that because a lot of people want to be liked by every­body. I want to be liked too. But I know that years from now they’ll appreciate how I pushed them to get us to that end result.”

Nobody wants to think about it, but Bryant’s retirement is just around the corner. With five championships, two Finals MVP awards, one NBA MVP trophy, 16 All-Star selections, 15 All-NBA nods, three gold medals and 31,700 points scored (the most of any active player and fourth all-time), Bryant has had a hell of a career.

Let’s hope that he can return to superstar form so that he can keep dazzling us and dropping our jaws until the curtain falls. Bryant’s days in the NBA are numbered, so let’s enjoy the show while it lasts.

Record Number of NBA Players Competing in World Cup

The 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup gets underway today in Spain and a record 45 current NBA players will be featured on national team rosters, which is up from 44 in 2010.  The tournament features a record 75 players who have played in the NBA.

The World Cup will showcase 17 former NBA draftees whose rights are currently held by NBA teams, bringing the total number of current NBA players, former NBA players and NBA draftees participating in the tournament to a record 92.

Twenty-one of 24 national teams feature at least one current NBA player, former NBA player or NBA draftee, and 22 NBA teams are represented on national team rosters.

The Cavaliers and Rockets each have four current NBA players in the tournament, while the Bulls, Jazz, Nets and Timberwolves each have three.  The Grizzlies, Kings, Knicks, Pacers, Pelicans, Raptors, Spurs, Trail Blazers and Warriors each have two current NBA players in the tournament.

Outside of the United States, Spain has the most current NBA players with six.  France and Australia feature four current NBA players, while Brazil and Greece each feature three.  Argentina, Croatia and Lithuania each feature two current NBA players.

Here’s a list of current NBA players on 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup rosters:

COUNTRY NBA PLAYER NBA TEAM
Argentina Luis Scola Indiana Pacers
Argentina Pablo Prigioni New York Knicks
Australia Cameron Bairstow Chicago Bulls
Australia Matthew Dellavedova Cleveland Cavaliers
Australia Dante Exum Utah Jazz
Australia Brock Motum Utah Jazz
Brazil Anderson Varejao Cleveland Cavaliers
Brazil Tiago Splitter San Antonio Spurs
Brazil Nenê Washington Wizards
Croatia Bojan Bodgdanovic Brooklyn Nets
Croatia Damjan Rudez Indiana Pacers
Dominican Republic Francisco Garcia Houston Rockets
Finland Erik Murphy Cleveland Cavaliers
France Evan Fournier Orlando Magic
France Nicolas Batum Portland Trail Blazers
France Boris Diaw San Antonio Spurs
France Rudy Gobert Utah Jazz
Greece Kostas Papanikolaou Houston Rockets
Greece Nick Calathes Memphis Grizzlies
Greece Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee Bucks
Lithuania Donatas Motiejunas Houston Rockets
Lithuania Jonas Valanciunas Toronto Raptors
Mexico Jorge Gutierrez Brooklyn Nets
Puerto Rico J.J. Barea Minnesota Timberwolves
Senegal Gorgui Dieng Minnesota Timberwolves
Slovenia Goran Dragić Phoenix Suns
Spain Pau Gasol Chicago Bulls
Spain Marc Gasol Memphis Grizzlies
Spain Ricky Rubio Minnesota Timberwolves
Spain José Calderon New York Knicks
Spain Serge Ibaka Oklahoma City Thunder
Spain Victor Claver Portland Trail Blazers
Turkey Omer Asik New Orleans Pelicans
United States Mason Plumlee Brooklyn Nets
United States Derrick Rose Chicago Bulls
United States Kyrie Irving Cleveland Cavaliers
United States Kenneth Faried Denver Nuggets
United States Andre Drummond Detroit Pistons
United States Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors
United States Klay Thompson Golden State Warriors
United States James Harden Houston Rockets
United States Anthony Davis New Orleans Pelicans
United States DeMarcus Cousins Sacramento Kings
United States Rudy Gay Sacramento Kings
United States DeMar DeRozan Toronto Raptors

 

Here’s a list of NBA free agents on 2014 FIBA World Cup rosters:

COUNTRY NBA PLAYER MOST RECENT NBA TEAM
Australia Aron Baynes San Antonio Spurs
Brazil Leandro Barbosa Phoenix Suns
Mexico Gustavo Ayon Atlanta Hawks
Philippines Andray Blatche Brooklyn Nets
Serbia Miroslav Raduljica Los Angeles Clippers

 

Here’s a list of former NBA players on 2014 FIBA World Cup rosters:

COUNTRY NBA PLAYER MOST RECENT NBA TEAM
Argentina Walter Herrmann Detroit Pistons
Argentina Andres Nocioni Philadelphia 76ers
Australia David Andersen New Orleans Hornets
Australia Nathan Jawai Minnesota Timberwolves
Brazil Alex Garcia New Orleans Hornets
Brazil Marcus Vinicius New Orleans Hornets
Croatia Oliver Lafayette Boston Celtics
Croatia Damir Markota Milwaukee Bucks
Croatia Roko Ukic Milwaukee Bucks
Finland Hanno Möttölä Atlanta Hawks
France Mickael Gelabale Minnesota Timberwolves
Greece Andreas Glyniadakis Seattle SuperSonics
Iran Hamed Haddadi Phoenix Suns
New Zealand Kirk Penney San Antonio Spurs
Puerto Rico Carlos Arroyo Boston Celtics
Puerto Rico Renaldo Balkman New York Knicks
Puerto Rico Daniel Santiago Milwaukee Bucks
Senegal Hamady N’Diaye Sacramento Kings
Serbia Nenad Krstic Boston Celtics
Slovenia Uroš Slokar Toronto Raptors
Spain Rudy Fernandez Denver Nuggets
Spain Juan Carlos Navarro Memphis Grizzlies
Spain Sergio Rodriguez New York Knicks
Ukraine Pooh Jeter Sacramento Kings
Ukraine Slava Kravtsov Phoenix Suns

 

Here’s a list of draftees whose rights are held by NBA teams on World Cup rosters:

COUNTRY NBA PLAYER RIGHTS HELD BY
Australia Brad Newley Houston Rockets
Brazil Raul Neto Utah Jazz
Croatia Dario Saric Philadelphia 76ers
Croatia Ante Tomic Utah Jazz
Finland Petteri Koponen Dallas Mavericks
France Joffrey Lauvergne Denver Nuggets
Greece Georgios Printezis Atlanta Hawks
Iran Arsalan Kazemi Philadelphia 76ers
Lithuania Renaldas Seibutis Dallas Mavericks
Serbia Nemanja Bjelica Minnesota Timberwolves
Serbia Bogdan Bogdanovic Phoenix Suns
Spain Alex Abrines Oklahoma City Thunder
Spain Sergio Llull Houston Rockets
Turkey Cenk Akyol Los Angeles Clippers
Turkey Furkan Aldemir Philadelphia 76ers
Turkey Emir Preldzic Dallas Mavericks
Ukraine Sergii Gladyr Atlanta Hawks

 

Check back throughout the week for more World Cup coverage from Basketball Insiders.

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About Alex Kennedy

Alex Kennedy

Alex Kennedy is a Senior NBA Editor for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last eight seasons. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.