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Nothin' but Net: Kobe injury provides cover

The sight of one of the sport's greatest stars in crippling pain and a team's season all but over is devastating.

However, there is a weird silver lining, if you really want to see it, following Kobe Bryant's season-ending left Achilles tendon tear.

The Los Angeles Lakers are going to make the playoffs. They are 1 1/2 games ahead of the Utah Jazz for the final spot and the Jazz face two stiff road challenges. The Lakers are at home for their finale.

Without Bryant, their chances are minuscule to top either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the San Antonio Spurs in a first-round series. With Bryant, while their chances were certainly better, the outlook was still bleak.

So the Kobe Achilles tear and accompanying surgery leaves the Lakers in almost no different situation than before the injury.

Except now, they have an opportunity.

With Bryant immobile, the Lakers toppled the San Antonio Spurs, 91-86, Sunday night.

The focal point of Mike D'Antoni's offense became the big men, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. All they delivered were 33 points, 33 rebounds and six blocked shots.

"We all know how to play basketball and we're doing what we can do," Howard said after the win.

Combining Howard's and Gasol's point total was misleading. Howard had 26 of the 33 and 17 of the 33 rebounds. He led the team in scoring, although he took the third-most shots.

If Howard emerges as the bona fide franchise star he thinks he is, and carries them to a respectful run in the postseason, he might just be more inclined to stay in Los Angeles in the offseason.

The Lakers have long claimed Howard is the future of the organization. Bryant has said as much himself. Howard has not enjoyed his time in Los Angeles. He's openly battled with Bryant and just never looked like himself. Howard is a goofy, likable character when he isn't derailing entire franchises and he's smiled as much this season as a death-row inmate preparing for root canal on his way to the finish line.

If this run of 10 or so games makes Howard feel more like the man, then the chances improve he stays (truth be told, he's probably coming back irrespective of Bryant's injury). The Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks will come courting and two weeks of being idolized could go a long way in Howard's mind and ego.

Also, Bryant's recovery time is expected to be 6-9 months. If that timetable is accurate, Bryant comes back around the start of the season. If not, he's back in January.

That gives Howard ample time to take over the franchise.

Even if Bryant comes back in October, at the age of 35, he probably won't be the same player. Make no mistake, he's going to try to be the same player because his competitive drive could stop traffic, but age and science say otherwise.

The passing of the torch can come without Bryant having to suffer the indignity of admitting he can't lead a team anymore. This injury provides that cover.

Howard likes having his ego stroked. It's been evident all season. The Achilles tear affords Howard the chance to elevate his status without an ugly situation ... well, other than a human's Achilles tendon rupturing like a tightly stretched rubber band.

Now Howard is the hero while Bryant recovers, assuming of course, the Lakers don't exercise the amnesty clause on him. He's due slightly more than $30 million next season, which is an obscene amount for a 35-year-old returning from a major leg injury.

It could be a P.R. nightmare for the Lakers to jettison the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history, but it could make all the sense in the world business wise.

That's a darkish silver when coloring your linings.

This horrible injury also helps D'Antoni in a way. After the Lakers canned Mike Brown five games into the season, D'Antoni was given a four-year contract. The team has not exactly flourished under him, so the possibility may have existed that another coaching change could've been made (there has really been no scuttlebutt about that other than pure speculation).

D'Antoni can feel safe knowing a setback like Bryant's probably won't cost him his job.

And this sort of calamity could work as a rallying cry, not for the playoffs, but for next season. If Bryant was serious about retiring after next season, then what better cause is out there than winning one more for Kobe.

Bryant could see what Howard was able to do in his absence, take a smaller role and ride off into the sunset as one of the five best ever. He also could do it, knowing the only organization he's ever called home, is set up for the future with Howard.

Bryant has spent the whole season trying to reinforce in Howard that this will one day be Howard's franchise. Horrible to say, but Bryant's injury may have become the one act that finally drove that point home.

The lining isn't exactly sterling silver, but from pain could come pleasure.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

- No one was shocked when Yahoo Sports broke a story that Doug Collins told Philadelphia 76ers ownership he won't return as head coach next season. History has said as much - Collins has never lasted longer than three seasons with one team. The outcome has been bungled a bit as Collins' agent said Sunday, hours before Yahoo's report, that Collins would come back as coach. No one pours more into his job than Collins and this season has been a disaster. Andrew Bynum didn't play a minute, Jason Richardson missed most of it and Collins has had a meltdown or two, so this decision shocks almost no one.

- The Sixers will try to keep Collins in the fold somewhere. Losing him and Rod Thorn in the same season is a lot to overcome from a leadership standpoint. Collins' son Chris was just named head coach of Northwestern University, so if papa bear stays in the mix with the Sixers, he could still fly to all of Chris' home games. If he stays with the organization, I'd bet on Michael Curry as the next coach. If he doesn't, then a whole new search will commence and who knows what that will yield.

- Dirk Nowitzki became the 17th player in NBA history to score 25,000 points. I've always contended that Nowitzki is the most under-appreciated superstar, in any sport, of this generation. He's taken the Mavericks franchise, devoid of any other superstar, to an NBA title. Not many teams have had that happen.

- Awards column later in the week.

- Movie moment - When I have to look up who the person is hosting the MTV Movie Awards, I lose whatever mild interest I had very quickly.

- TV moment - The worst, most awkward shot in sports coverage is always at the very end of the Masters. They interview the winner in Butler Cabin, then do a video package with Jim Nantz narration, then throw it to the just the winner on camera, grinning like a simpleton with the four other people in the room clapping. It is so corny, it's almost tough to watch.

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