Having Andrew Bynum out is nothing new to the Lakers. In January 2008 he injured his knee against Memphis and missed the remainder of the regular season and playoffs as the Lakers made their first trip to the Finals since 2004. The following season, in some sort of cruel episode of deja vu, Bynum would again injure his knee against Memphis and miss a substantial amount of games – only this time he was able to return to the team and help them win the championship as a spot contributor all while dragging a bum wheel up and down the court. So, when Bynum came up limping against Minnesota on Friday with a strained achilles tendon and a recovery timeline of at least a week (and likely more), the Lakers will shift back into a familiar mode of playing without its up and coming starting Center.
However, this season things are a bit different. For one, it is expected that Bynum will be back sooner rather than later (knocking on wood). For two, Bynum is a better player this year whose contributions are more valued and part of the winning structure of this team. (For those that question this point, this season is the first since Bynum started to get regular minutes that he’s earned crunch time minutes – at times displacing Gasol late in close games. In seasons past this part of the game was always Odom/Gasol time or even Kwame/Odom time, but this season ‘Drew has impressed enough that he’s gotten time in these situations.) And third, this time the injury comes much later in the season with the Lakers only having 12 games left on their regular season schedule while also hitting a stretch of tough games that the team needs to win to secure the number one seed in the West and build some momentum going into the playoffs.
So, all of these factors conspire to create one line of thinking for the Lakers that are healthy enough to play – it’s time to step up. As we all know, the Lakers are about to embark on a pretty tough road trip. Five games in eight days against teams that are either trying to fine tune their games for long playoff runs or fighting tooth and nail to make the post season at all. The only team that is clearly out of the playoffs that the Lakers will face is New Orleans, but even they are expecting the return of Chris Paul and want to use this last part of their schedule as a springboard into next season by winning games and evaluating how their talented PG’s play together. So what does this mean for the Lakers? To me it means that there needs to be a sense of urgency when playing this upcoming set of games. It also means that while all players need to chip in and play good ball, there are four specific players that I think need to fill in the gaps while Bynum is out:
*Pau Gasol needs to play the exact way that he’s been playing recently. Against the Warriors, Kings, T’Wolves, and Wizards Pau has really raised his level of play and flourished on offense while rebounding well and playing good defense. In three of those four games, Gasol has scored over 25 points, grabbed 12 or more rebounds, had at least 3 assists, and tallied a blocked shot in each contest. That level of production will need to continue and he’ll need to do it while playing heavy minutes on the road – where fatigue sets in faster and easier. Unlike last season, Gasol has played up and down and has suffered some injuries that have limited his minutes and his overall production. But if the game against the Wizards is any indication, Pau will need to look back to last season and use those games as a template for what is needed from him. He’ll need to play 40+ minutes and be the fulcrum of our triple post offense. He’ll need to play strong and impose his game on the front courts that he’ll be facing. No small feat considering he’ll face Duncan, Okafor, Chuck Hayes, and Al Horford on this trip – all players that play some very good post defense. History says that Pau is up to the challenge. Last season, Phil pushed Gasol hard and never let up on him offering only faint praise all while demanding and expecting strong performances nightly. And Pau delivered. Can he do the same on this trip? He’ll need to (and I think he will).
*Lamar Odom is going to have to play the all around game that all his supporters cite when speaking of his value to the Lakers. Last night against Washington, Odom didn’t score well, but he filled the boxscore in other categories and was the glue of our front court rotation. Last season, when Bynum went down, Odom responded with what was arguably his best stretch of basketball in his entire career. He had a slew of high double digit rebound games and contributed with deft passing and above average scoring for the Lakers. Considering he’ll be facing off against David West, Josh Smith, Luis Scola, and Jeff Green on this trip, he’ll need to come close to replicating last season’s Bynum-less efforts on this roadie. I know there are some that still question Odom’s mindset and wonder if he’ll ever be more than a talented tease. I’m not one of those guys, but he’ll need to prove it again to me and to everyone else. From an X’s and O’s perspcetive, one way to get Odom playing well is to let him have the ball in his hands more. What I mean is that the Lakers need to let Odom be an offensive initiator and allow him to bring the ball up. This takes Kobe and Fisher off the ball and allows them to get their shots within the offense more. It also allows Odom to be more of a cutter and slasher in our sets because the player that makes the first pass is often the player that cuts hard through the lane after the initial entry. Odom excels in this role because he is one of the better Lakers at finding creases in defenses while easily making catches and then either scoring or passing to another teammate. But too often this season LO has not performed in this role because he’s shared the court with other ball dominant guards (namely Farmar and Brown). Now that LO is in the starting line up, he can take on more responsibility in getting our offense organized, enabling him to be more involved from the outset of games.
*Josh Powell looks to be the back up front court player that will see his minutes increase the most with Bynum out. And with that increase in his role, he’ll need to back up the faith that the coaches are showing him with actual production. Powell is a true professional, and he’s going to get his chance to show that he can make shots when needed and rebound the ball the way that the team expects of its big men. Essentially, Powell will have to provide more than just a warm body in the minutes that he’ll receive and do it playing both PF and C. At this point, it’s obvious that the coaches think that that Powell can play some Center (at least against opponents that don’t feature a dominant post player). And while Josh is undersized to play in the pivot, his offensive game is one that lends itself to success playing Center in our system. Playing PF isn’t really that different than playing C and Josh will get plenty of chances to play pick and pop on both secondary fast break chances and within the Triangle in our sets that feature the pinch post and sideline P&R. Powell will also get a lot of offensive rebounding opportunities as Gasol, Kobe, and LO get more attention in our half court sets. I’m just looking for steady minutes and some good shooting from Powell. I think he’s up to the task.
*Ron Artest is a guy that we have not needed much offense from this season. Yes his outside shooting has been nice, but what he’s really been needed for is his lockdown defense on the wing. Well now, with Bynum out, the Lakers will need Ron to perform on offense and take a more active role in scoring the ball. Yesterday, in the Wizards game, Ron provided perfect example of what will be needed from him in the scoring department (tallying 16 points on 10 shots). Against the Wiz, he hesitated less and was more aggressive and sought out his shooting opportunities. He still took a few too many off balance leaners for my taste, but that is his game and if he’s feeling those shots, then by all means take them. Even if he hasn’t discovered all the nuance of our sets, we need him comfortable on offense right now so I’m willing to live with some mistakes if he can find that comfort level. But don’t let this talk of requiring more offense mask the fact that we will still need the defensive minded Artest on this trip. On Ron’s menu is Kevin Durant, likely some minutes on both of Richard Jefferson and a red hot Ginobili, Joe Johnson (and probably some Josh Smith too), Kevin Martin (with a side of Trevor Ariza), and he’ll even see some minutes on David West. It was not too long ago that Ron Artest was touted as one of the best two way players in the entire league. With Bynum out, he’s going to get the chance to show that he’s still got some of that in him.
As I mentioned earlier, playing without ‘Drew is nothing new. But the Lakers are now at a part of the season where the competition is fierce and their coach expects a lot from them. In fact, Phil has said that while a 4-1 record on this road trip is “acceptable”, that record is “not what champions look for” and that he wants the team to go 5-0. Lets see if the team can rise to the challenge in front of them and get the wins that their coach is expecting of them.