Thoughts on (hopefully only) eight Drew-less weeks
On the plus side, I learned what "subluxation" means. On the minus side, everything else.
I'm not gonna lie. Nor am I gonna beat around the bush. Andrew Bynum missing at least eight weeks with, in layman's terms, a dislocated kneecap puts the Lakers, to use "Ocean's Eleven" speak, in "Barney Rubble." For those of you who only saw "Ocean's Twelve," that's the Don Cheadle character's phrase for "trouble." And if there's such a thing as "deep Barney Rubble," the Lakers are currently standing waist-high in it. They've just gone from one of the top-5 teams in the west (arguably in the NBA) to a squad that becomes markedly less dynamic and effective. Yes, there were several factors to this season's forward leap. The leadership and skills upgrade Derek Fisher represents over Smush Parker. Jordan Farmar's offseason improvement, which has allowed him to lead a more prolific (for the most part) second unit. Trevor Ariza replacing two spare parts and immediately clicking. The natural growth that comes with a core unit racking another season together. But that was all icing on the cake. Bynum is the cake. There's no single element shifting the Lakers into a legit playoff team than Andrew Bynum balling like a top-tier center.
Period. End of discussion. There is no debate to be had.
Having a big man that impacts the game on both ends of the floor is a luxury most teams don't have, one the Lakers have missed since a certain someone packed his bags for Miami. Obviously, Bynum isn't prime-of-his-career Diesel quite yet, but the difference between him and either Kwame Brown or Chris Mihm is night and day. Beyond just his scoring and being a board machine, the attention Bynum commands creates easy opportunities for his teammates, alters a zillion shots, and makes life less taxing for Kobe, who's now part of one of the NBA's best inside-outside duos. Aside from Parker-Duncan and maybe Williams-Boozer, Kobe-Bynum might be the league's most balanced I-O attack. Nash-Amare and Yao-McGrady (when healthy, which is never) have the scoring part covered, but the bigs don't bring the D. KG anchors a paint fortress with solid perimeter coverage for Boston, but doesn't fill up buckets like a traditional center. Camby and Chandler protect the rim, but aren't reliable scoring options. Dwight Howard plays on both sides of the ball, but Rashard/Hedo, while good, ain't Kobe by a long shot. Thus, there's a reason Kobe and Drew playing at this level creates a brand new equation. And if you remove this weapon from said equation, the results following the "equals" sign turns considerably different. And by "different," I mean "worse."
How do the Lakers weather the storm from here? For those thinking "trade," my immediate reaction is "good luck." Who you gonna move? Kwame and LO have the contracts needed for a blockbuster, but with size on short supply, you likely can't swap them. Ditto smaller-salaried Ronny Turiaf and maybe even Mihm. Javaris Crittenton or Jordan Farmar make too little money to bring back somebody of impact (unless it's a rookie-scale big, but there ain't none of worth getting moved for a backup PG or that dude's replacement). Derek Fisher isn't going anywhere. Even if they wanted to move Luke Walton, he has a base-level contract, which makes a trade very complicated. I'm pretty sure Trevor Ariza can't be flipped for a while unless straight up (and I'm definitely sure wouldn't land an impact player even if he made enough money to match salaries). And while you can never say never with Isiah Thomas still employed, I don't see the phone lighting up with takers for Vlad Rad. Thus, barring some wacky five team trade, the Lakers are kind of stuck when it comes to making moves to counter Bynum's absence.
Instead, I'm guessing a free agent big man will take that 15th roster spent. Maybe even two (and if that's the case, I imagine they'll eat Coby Karl's contract). Maybe a 10-day contract guy via the D-League or Europe. Maybe they coax PJ Brown or C-Webb out of retirement. Maybe training camp resident Jabari Smith will return to back up Kwame as the NBA's only "Cousins Tandem." But whatever the means, the Lakers need size in a desperate way. Chris Mihm won't be back for at least another couple weeks (and wasn't playing well when, relatively speaking, "healthy"). Vlad Radmanovic is a few games from returning, but might otherwise be out of the rotation and brings little to the table in terms of bulk. Ronny Turiaf plays his guts out, but isn't a true center and being forced to play him exclusively as a 5 robs depth from the power forward rotation. And even if you think the drop off from Andrew to Kwame won't be sizable- I don't see how, but I'm too depressed to argue- it doesn't change the fact that Brown still isn't 100% and is a 50/50 shot to get injured boarding the plane to Seattle. Plus, it's not entirely about the drop off from Andrew to Kwame. It's about the drop off from Kwame to an out of position Turiaf and what that does to the overall rotation. And bottom line, a front line rotation of Kwame, undersized Turiaf and Odom and even more undersized Walton isn't realistic, even for just a few games.
Aside from adding a player or two, what else am I expecting from the Lakers? Well, I don't know about "expect," but here's what I'm hoping. That they can play .500 or slightly better ball until around mid-March, when Bynum theoretically returns. That might be a downer goal for a team that's currently fourteen games above that mark, but I now consider this team dramatically closer to last season's, which was more or less a .500 club. But if they can tread water for a while and Bynum doesn't take too long to recover or get back in the swing of things, they could be solid again come playoff time (which I still don't expect them to miss, by the way). And certainly, that 25-11 cushion comes in handy right about now. I'm also thinking that for the time being Bynum's injury will prompt Phil to substitute Ariza into the starting lineup for Walton, with Luke becoming Odom's "small but who else are you gonna play" sub for Odom. When Vlad returns, so might the starting lineup, but for now, I'm predicting that's The Zen Master's reaction.
And speaking of reactions, here's another one I'm keeping a close eye on. Aside from the general question of how/if Kwame answers the bell, I'm quite curious as to how Kobe deals with this bump in the road. He's obviously been fantastic this season, surprising many (including myself) by providing terrific leadership for a team he appeared to want no part of. However, things have also been surprisingly good and it's much easier to be a leader when the sailing is smooth. Will a rough patch, perhaps coupled with teammates not able to pick up the slack, mean a repeat of the sourness we saw last offseason and in the past? I'm not trying to be a pessimist, but you also can't ignore history. As unparalleled as Kobe remains when it comes to hitting an opponent with punches, the same can't be said about his ability to roll with them. I'd like to think Kobe will see the bigger picture, recognize this development as a hiccup (even if it costs the Lakers what was shaping into a terrific season) and keep sight of what appears to be a very good thing going in L.A. But seeing the bigger picture has never been Kobe's strong suit, so while I'm optimistic he will, "confident " would be a stretch.
Time will tell. The same can be said about what lies ahead for the Los Angeles Lakers.