Don’t get upset. I know the question asked in the title of this post possesses certain connotations. Just let it go. “The Missing Link” best describes what many folks (including myself) are expecting Andrew Bynum to be for the Los Angeles Lakers in their quest to win their first NBA title since 2002 – their first in the Shaq-less Age. And yet I’m starting to wonder whether we’re expecting too much.
During my weekly stint on NBATV, I’ve boldly declared the Lakers “the team to beat” in the NBA playoffs. My reasoning is simple: In the wake of this stormy and intriguing season of trades, the Lakers appeared to have gained the most for the least. In February, they obtained all-star forward/center Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for a couple of ham sandwiches and a bag of pretzels. Since then the Lakers have gone 15-3 and soared to the top of the Western Conference standings, a status not even Kreskin could have predicted for this once-dysfunctional squad.
It would be easy to credit the surge to the inside-outside arsenal of the versatile Gasol (19.8 ppg as a Laker) and the wondrously gifted Kobe Bryant (the league’s second-best player, according to my 13-year-old sneaker-addicted son). But the Lakers would not have been in position to obtain Gasol, nor would they have already emerged as one of the surprise team of the season, had it not been for the maturation and emergence of Andrew Bynum.
The not-yet-20-year-old, in his third pro season, had emerged as a low-post presence on both ends of the floor, contributing 13 points, ten rebounds and more than 2.1 blocks every night. He was not yet as explosive as Amare Stoudemire, nor as wisely dominant as Tim Duncan but save those two, and perhaps Yao Ming, he was the most vital big man out West.
Then he went down. It was Game 35, on January 13 against the Memphis Grizzlies (in an irony, Gasol was on the floor as an opponent). An MRI later revealed he’d suffered a subluxation of the patella and a bone bruise of his left knee, and he was declared out for eight weeks.
This week, Bynum, whose work ethic during the off-season led Laker GM Mitch Kupchak to believe this would indeed be a breakout year for the precocious 7-footer, began running on an “anti-gravity” treadmill that allowed him to reduce his impact on the machine by essentially decreasing his weight via an air-pressure chamber.
The playoffs begin in about a month. Optimistically, the Lakers originally hoped Bynum would have returned by now. Late March is the thinking now, maybe. Even that would give him less than three weeks to regain his form, strength and, perhaps most importantly, his confidence. Moreover, Bynum has never played with Gasol – and while the veteran Bryant possessed the savvy to ease the transition, a young player like Bynum might struggle a bit to find his lane in the new lineup.
In fact, might Bynum return affect the Lakers’ mojo? As well as they’re playing, adding another player to the mix at this critical junction – particularly one with such a formidable presence – might be the very wrong move for a team looking to roll into the postseason.
Just ask the Phoenix Suns.