First, a quick checklist of players NOT injured at some point in this season:
Get the point?
The Lakers have been plagued by injuries all season long, from Pau's hammies to Artest's hangover to Kobe's whole body. Whilst injuries cannot and must not be used as an excuse for substandard performance, it is nonetheless true that injuries have limited the Lakers for the majority of the season; and that the Lakers have literally not been able to play together as a team all season. Even now, when the Lakers are playing their best basketball since the All-Star Break, they're still not at full strength with Lamar Odom playing through his shoulder injury, Sasha still being out due to an ankle injury, and Bynum playing through his surgery-requiring torn meniscus. And then there's Kobe, who's sustained enough injuries for a whole franchise.
There's currently nothing that can be really done about these injuries, and only Sasha's condition may improve before the end of the Lakers' season, whenever that may be. Whether the Lakers win or lose, they shall have to do so whilst fighting through these injuries. Nonetheless, let's take a gander through Gary Vitti's injury report, shall we?
Well, let's start with the most recent injury, Andrew Bynum's hyperextended knee aggravating a miniscule tear in his knee cartilage that he had been playing through all season, upping the severity of the injury from 'very small tear' of the meniscus to 'small tear'. Whilst the injury cannot be further structurally compromised through continuing to play, it is a matter of playing through the pain and whilst Bynum will no doubt become accustomed to the pain, it will simultaneously atrophy. So far, he's been able to not only play through the pain, but drop career highs in rebounds whilst doing so. The only question is, will he be able to keep it up? He's already stated that the injury will likely require surgery in the offseason, and as such the seriousness of the injury must not be underplayed.
And then there's another injured big man, Sixth Man Lamar Odom, who is also suffering from an injury likely requiring surgery. Odom's injury is an aggravated shoulder injury that he suffered whilst dunking on Ray Allen all the way back on February 18. The injury causes numbness in the shoulder at random points in time that can sometimes account for Odom's lack of will to shoot. He plays through it diligently and quietly, without so much as a mention of the injury. However, undeniably, his production has been at career lows this season and he has not stepped it up in the playoffs like he is wont to do, particularly considering Bynum's minutes are limited due to his knee. Make no mistake, just because this injury is not highly publicised, does not mean it's not critical.
Sasha Vujacic injured his ankle in the last game of the regular season, against the lowly Clippers. It's almost as if the Lakers are cursed, not being able to play a single game without an injury. It's an ankle sprain, apparently. Initially, the prognosis was that he would miss most, if not all, of the first round, and then presumably return sometime in the second. Well, Game Three is fast approaching, and still no news on Sasha. I understand that it was one nasty ankle injury, but a sprain causing this much missed time? C'mon.
DJ Mbenga suffered several injuries directly coinciding with the return of Andrew Bynum, coupling with Sasha's injury to ensure that we never have a fully healthy roster (seriously, did the Clippers pass their curse on to us?), obtaining a concussion and then injuring his eye. He's been out of the rotation for most, if not all, of the playoffs, and whilst that may simply be due to matchups, watching Josh Powell play is NOT a fun experience.
Ron Artest - what's up with his shoulder? He's wearing what's almost a t-shirt underneath his jersey with padding for his right shoulder. Has he done himself an injury and is simply too much of a hard nut to admit to it, or does it simply make him feel warm inside to pretend to be an NFL player? Honestly, it's a 50-50 chance either way, you never know with Ron-Ron. I haven't heard anything on this issue. Do comment if you have.
Also recovering from injuries are Luke Walton, whose pinched nerve in his back has held him out for much of the season and thus he has never truly been in form; Shannon Brown, still affected by a thumb injury caused by a dunk, Jordan Farmar who has suffered from a hand injury this season. Pau Gasol had strained hamstrings at the beginning of the season, but he took plenty of rest to heal them up, and is now fine.
And now, finally, Kobe Bryant. Kobe Bean Bryant aka Bruce Fucking Willis. Left knee, tendons, left ankle, shoulder, elbow, finger, back. All in one season. All this whilst already playing through a broken finger from last season, which he refused to have surgery on. Kobe has seemed immortal at times, and had not missed a game in years; but even he was brought down by such a plethora of injuries. He actually missed games, for Christ's sake. He missed gamewinners, too. He had an atrocious month or two, and there was a period of time in which shooting 30% was the norm. And then the playoffs commenced, and he's right back to old Kobe. Watching him, not all the athleticism is back, but the end result is still the same.
So was it that his injuries all miraculously, simultaneously healed to coincide perfectly with the playoffs? Was is that he was exhausted and resting four of the last five games fixed him right up? Or was it just a matter of heart and focus, that now that Kobe is more experienced he does not go all out every game, and instead allows the fire to burn behind closed doors, gaining strength and heating up for the playoffs? Or is it more utilitarian than that, simply that Kobe is getting old, and he needs to conserve his body for the playoffs? A scary concept, that last one.
And one supported by other evidence given solely in this season. Kobe's finger healed, yet him still ails him. Why? Arthritis. Now, while I am fully aware this form of arthritis can happen to any athlete, particularly one who has prior injured that joint, the fact remains that arthritis is proof that Kobe's body is breaking down. He sat games with swelling in his knee, the same knee he had surgery on earlier on in his career. As has been previously noted, swelling is not an injury, but a symptom. A symptom of what? Miles and minutes. Kobe's knees have done so much work, they are starting to break down.
Ignore age for a moment, and look at Kobe's minutes played instead. Over 44,000. That number is ridiculous. It is a tantamount to his greatness, but also possibly a warning that the best has already come, and it's only downhill from here.
Kobe's in his 14th season. He turns 32 in August. He has played over 44,000 minutes. He is, undeniably, getting old. Even with his current dominance, it's more on jumpshots and cleverly executed moves than the speed and athleticism he used to harness.
Modern Kobe still shows sparks of youth. His dunk last game shows that. But now he picks his spots, and mixes it in with his ridiculous array of moves. While this may mean his production will not drop too dramatically, it still means that Kobe is suffering from the most serious and inevitable ailment of all: Father Time. And his team suffers from it, too. Aside from Andrew, Shannon and Jordan, none of the rotation players are truly young. And it's not entirely probable that Shannon and Jordan are back last season.
What does this mean? That list of injuries I rapped out before? That's gonna be less of a tragic coincidence and more of the norm. But hey, if the norm is number one in the Western Conference and legit title contenders, I'm happy with that.