Statistically, Lakers have dropped off during Andrew Bynum's absence
Somehow the "Lakers playing without Andrew Bynum" mantra doesn't have the same ring to the "Lakers playing without Kobe Bryant" story line. Yet, during Bryant's five-game absence in February, every game story came with analysis on why the Lakers had played so well even though Bryant's valued presence was missing in the lineup.
During the Lakers' five-game stretch since Bynum strained his left Achilles' tendon March 19 against Minnesota, not as much attention has been devoted to the void he's left, beyond the latest: that the team expects his earliest return date to be April 8 against Denver. And ESPN Los Angeles' Brian Kamenetzky recently posted his take on what Bynum brings to the team.
Nonetheless, I think there are justifiable reasons for the difference. First, the Lakers' 4-1 run during Bryant's injury featured better team balance and improved defensive intensity. Those two qualities stood out because the Lakers played pretty inconsistently in those areas all season. Though most never made the leap to suggest the Lakers are better without Bryant (which is just plain absurd), the performances during his absence raised legitimate discussion about why the Lakers didn't always play as sharp with Bryant in the lineup.
Second, the Lakers obviously miss Bynum's inside presence, but the team's problems during its 2-2 trip are ones the Lakers have experienced even with Bynum in the lineup. Those include the team's lack of urgency, poor outside shooting, poor screen-and-roll defense and the bench play. If Bynum had played during this trip, it's conceivable the Lakers could've won more games, but it's also conceivable they could've won had they sharpened the aforementioned problems, with or without Bynum.
Still, there's no question the Lakers' play has dropped off since Bynum suffered the injury nearly two weeks ago. Consider the discrepancies in the team's statistics during the last five games compared with their season averages. That includes total offense (95 points per game, 102.45), rebounds (42.2, 44.45) and assists (17.2, 21.21). The drop-off in points and assists didn't happen solely because of Bynum's absence. Surely the Lakers' poor shooting contributes to the decreased production, but you also have to figure why the Lakers are taking those shots. And when you do, you realize Bynum's absence has exacerbated problems that had been present when he was in the lineup.
The reason for the increased outside shooting is because Bynum isn't in the paint, and it relates to the economic term "opportunity costs." For example, if decide to shop somewhere instead of working, you have to equate the lost money from not working and the money you spent buying something. So in Bynum's case, for every Lakers outside shot that didn't go in, you can be assured that some of those possessions wouldn't entailed easy inside points from Bynum had he been in the lineup.
There's never a good time to get injured, but Bynum got hurt just after putting together a month-long average of 15.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 56.8% shooting. That included the four-game stretch in which he posted 20 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks on 63.3% shooting. Though injuries are never "timely," Bynum's came just as he and forward Pau Gasol had started to develop chemistry. Though that's something the two have largely struggled to do, their presence alone still presented a threat simply because of matchup issues. The Lakers want both players to complement each other, but, as Bryant has often said, having two talented players to choose from inside is a "good problem" to have. Even though Gasol has maintained his production, with 20.6 points in the last five games, Bynum's absence gives the defense more reason to double-team Gasol, forcing the Lakers to try to correct a weakness in their outside shooting.
That's not the only area where the Lakers have seen a decrease. Lakers forward Lamar Odom has started in Bynum's absence and, with exception of his performance in Monday's 108-100 loss to New Orleans, he averaged 15.6 points on 46.5% shooting along with 11 rebounds during the first three games of the trip. Though Odom has comfortably filled the starting position, the bench has lost his leadership.
The unit has been plagued by inconsistency all season, but Odom's absence exacerbates the problem. Consider how opposing teams' benches outscored the Lakers reserves in three of the last five games: Washington (37-27), San Antonio (23-20) and New Orleans (42-12). Any of the positive aspects, such as Shannon Brown's 13 points against Washington and Jordan Farmar's 14 points against San Antonio and 11 points against Houston, were minimal compared with the problems the bench presented. That included the reserves squandering a fourth-quarter double-digit lead against Washington, Sasha Vujacic arguing with assistant coach Brian Shaw during the Oklahoma City game and the Lakers starters and reserves allowing the Hornets bench to dictate the tempo.
Clearly, the Lakers in the past have shown their ability to play without Bynum. But his absence continues a never-ending theme this season in which the Lakers have had to reestablish continuity as players shuffle in and out of the lineup because of injuries. Even when Bynum returns, he may have to catch up on his conditioning and reestablish the chemistry he had with Gasol and Bryant before his injury. One thing at least remains clear: with all the problems the Lakers face (lack of urgency, poor screen and roll defense, poor shooting, turnovers), the team can't afford to add yet another item of concern.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum hasn't played at all during the team's five-game because of a strained left Achilles' tendon. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times