Andrew Bynum has been diagnosed with a torn MCL. The likely date for his return has been ruled at two to three months which is sometime in April, with the playoffs starting in mid-April. For more on the injury please click this link.
So what does this mean for (a) the Los Angeles Lakers? (b) the Western Conference? (c) the entire NBA?
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers should work under the assumption that they’ll have to play the rest of the regular season without Andrew Bynum.
Obviously, the Lakers are going to react by replacing Andrew Bynum with Lamar Odom in the starting lineup. However, I’d also like to see them make a second change to the starting unit, to replace Luke Walton with Trevor Ariza for the following two reasons:
- Without Andrew Bynum back there in the paint to add a defensive presence, the Lakers will need more perimeter defense. Trevor Ariza is the second best (behind Kobe) wing defender on the roster so he should get the job. Ariza’s defense will also keep their potent transition game alive and well.
- Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol form the best passing big man duo in the game today, a supreme cutter of Ariza’s ilk will make them far more effective and help LA continue to get easy baskets in the paint.
I also think that Ariza will get an increase in playing time regardless of whether he starts or not, and he’s going to become and a figure of ever increasing importance for the Lakers.
The Lakers had the deepest bench in the league prior to this injury, but the loss of Bynum will remove that advantage. With Odom moving off the pine the club will lose it’s 6th man, and if they do like I suggested and start Ariza then they’ll lose their 7th man too. So what will the bench look like then?
- In their place the Lakers will be forced to give substantial minutes to a backup big man or two, with Josh Powell and Chris Mihm the likely recipients.
- I rate Powell as the better player and the one who deserves to be the first big off the bench. That said, I thought Powell struggled mightily last year at center while playing for the Clippers so I’m wary of this option, so the Lakers need to be careful of what types of lineups they use him in.
- Chris Mihm should be the second big off the bench and used when the Lakers need more size and heft in the paint.
- As for the wings, we’d likely see Radmanovic and Walton share the minutes. I think the Lakers will be tempted into trying to use some small ball with one of those two guys at power forward. Personally, I don’t like that option and would rather they play the two bigs mentioned above. I’d drop Luke Walton. I’m not sure how the Lakers will handle this problem.
- The backup backcourt will remain unchanged with Farmar and Vujacic. Both will play similar minutes. Their importance and roles will change though, moving up from the 8th and 9th men that they were into 6th (Farmar) and 7th men (Vujacic) respectively. Both players played these roles to good effect last season so there should be no problems there. Look for Farmar to take on a larger role as both the lead playmaker and scorer off the bench.
Another interesting issue with the second unit is which starter(s) Phil Jackson will leave out there with them. I never felt he was truly settled on his second unit in the playoffs last season, so I offer no guesses.
Andrew Bynum’s return is going to be difficult for the Lakers. The team is going to be playing very good basketball, readying themselves for the playoffs or already playing in the playoffs, have set rotations and excellent chemistry.
The situation will also be doubly difficult due to the lack of time that the Lakers have had with both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the same squad. This was their first season together, they’ve only played 40 or so games, and the chemistry is good but not great. This duo, and the starting lineup as a whole, badly needed the rest of the season to build the chemistry they needed.
I don’t think Phil Jackson will upset the balance by re-inserting Andrew Bynum into the starting lineup upon his return. I think he’ll run with the guys that brought him there and are in form. That will leave Bynum coming off the bench for the Lakers, likely as their sole big man off the pine playing 25-30 minutes. In other words, he’ll be replacing Ronny Turiaf and playing slightly more minutes.
If Andrew’s return comes after the playoffs have started, and perhaps regardless of his return date, then I can also see Phil limiting his offensive duties and asking him solely to concentrate on defense + rebounding and be a garbage man offensively.
Bynum’s Fitness and Form
I would also work under the assumption that Andrew Bynum will be limited after his return, and will not play at a level comparable to his recent form or his form last season.
I’d work under the assumption that he’d be more an excellent role player (a Brendan Haywood) than a star player (his recent high level of play).
If Bynum does return at full form and fitness, well then that’s brilliant and will likely keep the Lakers large lead in the West. However, a significantly lesser version of that form leaves the Lakers vulnerable and opens the doors to other teams.
I don’t think the Lakers can depend on Bynum being fully fit and at full form, that’s why I’d warn against that. Instead expect a quality contribution and a player that can be a difference maker, but not an All-Star level, game changing force. I think depending on that level of performance to return in tact will put the rest of the Lakers in jeopardy. The Lakers need to get themselves to a Championship caliber level without Bynum, and then accept whatever version of Bynum returns.
By this, I of course only mean this season, and fully believe until shown otherwise that Bynum will return to his best form next season and become the star he threatens to be.
Rest of the Regular Season
How well will the Lakers handle Bynum’s loss for the rest of the regular season? Very well, very well indeed.
This will be an offensive juggernaut that will play splendid basketball and likely win the top seed in the Western Conference by a comfortable margin.
This was an excellent team last season, after acquiring Gasol while playing without Andrew Bynum, and they should be able to regain that performance level and rip through the league’s competition once again during the regular season.
The regular season success without Bynum will not necessarily mean equal levels of playoff success. But in the regular season, they’ll be fine, they have more than enough talent to play at a supreme level.
The Western Conference
The Western Conference just blew wide open.
Those who have been reading more thoughts on the Western Conference elite in the past know that there were several teams that I had written off as legitimate contenders, well forget all of that because those opinions are now outdated.
San Antonio Spurs
I have major league doubts about the quality of their supporting cast, not their three stars, but the help they have around them.
Without Andrew Bynum, that’s immaterial, I think this Spurs squad would have beaten the Lakers last spring had Manu Ginobili been healthy and playing at his normal high level and I think they’ll have a very good chance this spring now too.
New Orleans Hornets
The Hornets are a vulnerable team with holes, but without Bynum, a Lakers-Hornets series has real legs to it.
The final game these two teams played last season is a very good example of what I think a potential playoff series would look like – an offensive orientated battle, very close with both teams having a good chance at winning, with both Paul and Bryant dominating their marks in incredible fashion, with Tyson Chandler causing the Lakers problems, and the Lakers screen and roll defense struggling.
Only this time the Hornets would have James Posey who can do far more than Mo Peterson could last season.
Portland have incredible big men with three hugely important players in Greg Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge and Joel Przybilla. These three men could, this season, give the Blazers a huge advantage in the paint versus all Western Conference teams. Suddenly – rebounding, interior scoring and defense – could all become major pluses for these young Blazers.
I think this Blazers front line could really bother LA if they were forced to play without Andrew Bynum. Even if Bynum does return, the Blazers could still have an advantage depending on what level of performance he’s able to offer.
The Blazers have one huge flaw right now and that’s perimeter defense. I’d watch this team very closely once Martell Webster returns because he may be able to seal that hole up well enough to make them a major contender to win the West.
I’ve said many times prior to and during the season that there is only one team (plus one other which possibly could rise to that level during the season – Blazers) in the West that I think can beat a healthy and in form Los Angeles Lakers and that’s the Houston Rockets.
A healthy Houston Rockets may now be the frontrunner in the West …. of course we have no way of telling because healthy and Houston are two words which don’t go hand in hand.
The Rockets are a sleeping giant in the West.
I’m not sure if this changes a whole lot for Utah unfortunately. I just don’t think they matchup well enough with some of the elite Western Conference teams, and in particular I think LA can beat this team again even without Bynum.
It’s hard to say for sure since the Jazz have their own health problems but it still doesn’t look good for this team, and that pains me to say because I love watching this team play basketball.
The question mark of the West? Did the seas open up enough to give them a shot at a ring?
I don’t know, maybe it did. I am doubtful though, but also uncertain.
Los Angeles Lakers
Even without Andrew Bynum this Lakers team is still a contender in the West, they just don’t have that massive margin for error any more. Suddenly possible matchups that one felt weren’t in play, suddenly, are in play again.
How much of that advantage do the Lakers get back when Andrew Bynum returns? It all depends on what level he returns at.
- If Bynum can play at his best possible level then their advantage in the West returns.
- If Bynum can only play at a Brendan Haywood type level, then they’re probably the frontrunner or at least one of the frontrunners for the West, but also a team that could be beaten by a couple of Western squads.
- If he’s at a lesser level, or doesn’t return, then the Lakers are still contender but vulnerable.
The Entire NBA
The final element of our three areas of focus, and the shortest of them all which I’m sure everyone will be thankful of. We’ve already covered the Lakers and Western Conference in some detail, which leaves only one stone unturned and that’s home court advantage.
The Lakers were my favourite to win home court advantage throughout the playoffs, with Boston my favourite to win home court in the Eastern Conference. The loss of Bynum for the rest of the season removes the Lakers “favourite status”. Don’t get me wrong, the Lakers without Bynum still have a shot at winning home court, they’re just no longer the team to beat.
It’s now a free for all between three teams in the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Los Angeles Lakers. The Orlando Magic might find a way to stay involved but for now I’m going to leave them out.