As we’ve all read by now, Andrew Bynum is still recovering from his off-season knee surgery. This extended recovery time will likely make him unavailable for the start of the regular season and the man himself has said that he may not play until late November. And while there is a group of people that are upset with Bynum once again being behind schedule his recovery from an injury, I think most folks are understanding of this recent set back and just want Bynum healthy for the playoffs come April and May (this group includes Phil Jackson) after Bynum gutted his way through the playoffs on his bad wheel while still contributing to the Lakers championship run. That said, missing Bynum still has implications for this team. Just because the Lakers have had success in years past of playing with a limited or completely out of the lineup Bynum doesn’t mean that there aren’t any reprecussions to having their starting Center (potentially) miss the first month of the season. This is especially true with this current Lakers group (as we’ll get into). Below are a few questions and things to look for while Bynum is on the mend until Thanksgiving.
*More time for Lamar Odom – is he ready to play the extra minutes? Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a question worth asking. In past seasons, Odom has filled in admirably for an injured Bynum and has usually raised the level of his game to the point where the Lakers are just as dangerous as they are with an Odom/Gasol frontcourt as when their twin towers patrol the paint. However, this is not a typical year. Odom is coming off an extended Summer of on court action playing for the gold medal winning World Champion Team USA. Combine this lack of rest and recuperation to the fact that Odom is coming off a third consecutive deep playoff run where he played heavy minutes in place of a banged up Bynum and there are legitimate questions about how Odom will hold up in the first part of the season. Maybe this is much ado about nothing and I’m worrying over a potential issue that will never sprout up. However, Odom is not known as the most durable player (despite his relatively high games played totals the last few seasons) and he’s also been nicked up himself the past couple of years.
*Who will be the Lakers’ 3rd big man with Bynum out? In years past, this role would be split between Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga – with Josh earning more minutes from coach Jackson. However, both of those players have moved on to new teams and now those minutes will have to go to another big on the Lakers roster. With the newly acquired Theo Ratliff and rookie Derek Caracter waiting in the wings, the Lakers look to have able replacements that can soak up some minutes in the front court. However, that’s not necessarily a given. Last year, in limited games (but extended – for him – minutes), Ratliff filled in nicely as a part time big man for the Bobcats. He rebounded at an average level and blocked over a shot a game. However, if forced into action for the Lakers will that same production be there? One can hope, but at this advanced stage of his career, that’s not a given. And then there’s the rookie Caracter who looks the part of a legitimate NBA big man but is still only a first year player with pretty big learning curve to get over on offense and the need to play defend and rebound at a high enough level where he’s actually useful on the court. Overall, I feel that both Ratliff and Caracter have enough experience and ability respectively to be relied upon, but with Andrew out the onus is on them to prove it for stretches in every game.
*Will the Lakers play more small ball? Last season, when Bynum missed games and Mbenga/Powell were ineffective the Lakers played Artest at PF for some stretches in situations where Pau/LO needed extra rest or were in foul trouble. During the first part of this season, the same may end up being true if Ratliff/Caracter prove to be no better than their predecessors. This off-season, the Lakers added a player in Matt Barnes that has at times played PF in small ball lineups on the Suns and Warriors. Whether or not this same need arises with Bynum missing up to a month to start this year remains to be seen, but Phil Jackson should be comforted that against certain teams – ones with perimeter oriented PF’s especially – the Lakers can trot out Barnes or Artest to play some PF in a pinch. Also, Odom did play some Center for Team USA in the Worlds so he may be able to fill that same role for short stretches if Pau is relegated to the bench for any reason.
It’s clearly not the end of the world that the Lakers will be without ‘Drew to start the season. As mentioned, they’ve survived without him in the past and have enough talent across the rest of the roster to compensate for his absence. That said, missing Bynum will be a challenge for this specific Lakers’ team. Their pre-season will be broken up by a trip to Europe and Phil Jackson has already said that this training camp will be a bust, what with the integration of new players and how that will likely curb their growth process as a team in the early going. You add that to the potential that the aforementioned issues crop up and the desire to have a stronger regular season this year than last and there may be issues on the horizon. Nothing that the team can’t overcome by the time the playoffs roll around, but a potential concern nonetheless.