Not to be a total downer, but the lofty dreams Lakers fans have conjured over the highly successful first 37 games of the season- I'm talking about winning the Pacific, maybe even the Western Conference- are officially out the window with the injury to Andrew Bynum. The growth in his play and his influence on games is the single greatest factor in L.A.'s improvement this season, and without that production in the lineup, they're simply not going to win as many games. Hopefully he comes back with enough time left in the season to regain the sort of form he was showing up until Sunday. If he does, the Lakers have a chance to make some noise in the postseason. If he doesn't? They're a whole lot more like the teams of the last couple seasons... and we know how that turned out.
Where they finish, though, when mid-April comes will be determined by how they fare over the next eight (hopefully not more) weeks. Sunday night, Kobe talked a lot about rhythm, how they'd established one with Bynum, and how they need to find a new one with him out of the lineup.
I hope they don't settle on the one they used last night.
There's no question last night's game was exciting, nor is there any question Kobe was incredibly clutch down the stretch. But there's also no question that over the next 30 or so games, if they rely on Kobe to be the beginning, middle, and end of the offense, they won't be very successful. It was one game, and there's no reason to freak out and assume this is how things are going to be going forward. Given that they were playing the wrong end of a back-to-back the night after a crushing injury, it's not all that surprising that Kobe put the weight of Sunday's game on his back. But remember, this was the Sonics, who absolutely suck. So squeaking out a win in OT against them, however admirable, doesn't mean the strategy is a long term solution. At least not against teams that are any good.
But going forward, with a couple days to practice and a chance to start reasonably fresh, the Lakers have to try and find a way to simulate as best they can, the diverse attack they've been able to sustain this season. When Kobe is forced into/forces (depending on your perspective) the sort of attack they had last night, in long run, it hurts. First, it puts an enormous amount of pressure on Kobe to sustain excellence night in and night out on a level that even he can't always meet. Last night, in 44 shots he was nearly 50% from the floor. Take away two or three of those makes, and it gets ugly. Yeah, you can say the same about other players- that if they miss a shot here or there, the game ends differently- but when one guy has such a disproportionate portion of the total product, the bad stuff hurts more. Everything we've ever read, every scout we've ever spoken to all points to the idea that the other team likes it better when Kobe takes the team on his shoulders, rather than trying to keep everyone involved.
Second, Kobe spent most of his time attacking from the perimeter. He only shot seven free throws. Chalk some of that up to the refs missing a few calls if you want, but generally Kobe wasn't penetrating. Too many jumpshots mean too many long rebounds, too many run out opportunities, and too many easy buckets for the other team. And the alternative, attacking the hole over and over again night after night after night opens him up to an incredible amount of physical pounding- even more if the other team is keying on him. Not a great alternative, either.
What the Lakers need to do, and it won't be easy, is find that rhythm they had at the beginning of last season. There's no reason not to continue working to create as much balance as possible. Obviously, Kobe is and should have the biggest impact on the game offensively for L.A. But for the first 40 games last year, they managed to get to a place where everyone was working as a pretty cohesive unit. The circumstances aren't the same right now, as last year the Lakers had Drew backing up Kwame, and currently they're frightfully thin up front. On the other hand, the backcourt is stronger with Fish and an improved Farmar, and Ariza provides an athletic, slashing finisher they didn't have a year ago.
As always, the onus to make this happen is shared. Kobe has to keep faith in his teammates, and they have to respond by staying active, playing aggressive basketball, and not becoming dependent on him to do everything. They must keep the offense moving towards the rim, either by posting guys like Odom, Walton, Kobe, and (yes) Kwame, then staying extremely active without the ball. In theory, they should be able to make it happen. It worked a year ago. In practice, I think they'll struggle mightily for the next few games trying to make it happen, but the payoff could come on the long February road trip.
Realistically, the Lakers aren't going to finish near the top of the conference anymore. They no longer have that x-factor pushing them up with the big boys in Bynum, who provided a true inside-out attack that helped create cleaner looks for everyone and a growing presence on the defensive end. What they can do is not completely abandon those things that have made them successful this season, even if their ability to execute at a high level is diminished. And remember, guys like Sasha and Vlad should give a little more depth to the rotation once they're healthy.
In short, don't panic. Don't freak out. The good news is that if they can maintain the same sort of team-centric approach, when Bynum comes back they could be stronger for it.