Everyone acknowledges the magnitude of a major Achilles tendon injury, but Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant seems oblivious to the reality. Because, if his most recent comments are any indication, he believes he's well on his way to the greatest recovery ever seen following this kind of injury.
"The normal timetable for recovery from an Achilles, we’ve shattered that," Bryant told NBA.com Monday. "Three-and-a-half months [and] I can already walk just fine. I’m lifting weights with the Achilles just fine and that’s different. So we don’t know what that timetable is going to be. It’s kind of new territory for us all."
Bryant still feels like the kind of player who's capable of doing unprecedented things, but this would be pretty special for the 34-year-old. He may not know what his current timetable is, but the track record for NBA players dealing with Achilles injuries has been abysmal -- even with the development of modern medicine.
The American Journal of Sports Medicine published a study in June titled "Performance Outcomes After Repair of Complete Achilles Tendon Ruptures in National Basketball Association Players." The study featured data and analysis for 18 players who suffered major Achilles injuries from 1988-2011.
The conclusions provided by the authors paint a grim picture for Bryant:
A complete rupture of the Achilles tendon and subsequent surgical repair, although rare, seriously affects the career of an NBA player. Of the 18 players identified over 23 seasons, only 44% were able to return to play for longer than 1 season after their surgical repair. Those who did return to play did not perform as well as their control-matched peers.
In simpler terms, guys often didn't come back following the injury, and, if they did, they weren't the same. Players who managed to play two-plus seasons after the injury saw their PER numbers drop by nine points, or essentially the difference between an All-Star and a scrub.
Using that data can provide some good news and bad news for the Lakers superstar. In keeping with the somber tone, though, the bad news will come first.
A peer-reviewed study probably wasn't necessary to sort this out, but Kobe's age doesn't bode well based on the data. The small sample size rendered the numbers statistically insignificant because players who were unable to return from the Achilles injury were consistently older than ones who did. And, at 34, Bryant is as old as any player in the study.
That's not good, obviously, but Kobe's talent will put him in a different class than other players. And, as the study indicates, recovering from this injury could be just the latest example of Bryant separating himself from the rest of the pack. In so many words, better players had better recovery rates:
The only factor that predicted the ability to return to play after surgery was the PER 2 years before the injury; for every 1-unit increase in the PER, the odds of returning to play increased by 18%. In other words, the better the performance of a player 2 years before the injury, the higher the chances he would return to NBA-level basketball postoperatively.
If Kobe wants to argue that he can come back healthy from this by October, that's his best evidence. What he's doing may be essentially unprecedented in basketball -- not only coming back on a short timetable, but coming back at all given his age. The sample size is small, though, and if anyone can pull from the pack, it's the Black Mamba.
With an Achilles injury like this, the track record for returning to elite performance is almost nonexistent. Dominique Wilkins had one big scoring season after his injury, but guys such as Elton Brand, Patrick Ewing and Isiah Thomas were never the same afterwards. Kobe says he'll come back as good as ever at 35, but he's showing absurd confidence for someone attempting the extraordinary when considering past results.
But, that's Kobe.
NBA players who suffer Achilles injuries have missed an average of nearly 56 games before returning. Guys such as Brand, Wilkins, Voshon Lenard and Maurice Taylor all took at least 9-10 months to recover -- and those guys were younger at time of their respective injuries.
When Bryant goes out and says stuff like this -- that he's blowing up our current perception of athletic recovery from Achilles injuries -- it sounds like typical Kobe. If he actually pulls this off and not only comes back quickly but plays well? Well, it will be time to stand up and applaud, because this guy just won't stop.