The bigger they are, the harder they fall; once again Andrew Bynum has fallen. How far do the Lakers fall without him?
It is a near repeat from the 2007-08 season: the Lakers cruising along behind the deadly play of Kobe Bryant and the improving game of the young giant only to see their big man brought down by an injured knee. Eight to 12 weeks they said then, eight to 12 weeks they say now.
Naturally, the questions follow. Will he return in time for the playoffs? Can the Lakers hold on to the No. 1 seed?
For the first, yes he should return in time for the playoffs. Of course the same was said last season, but the injury was different. Last year, he suffered a dislocated knee cap and bone bruise, a strange injury without much history to trend for recovery. While no knee injury is minor, an MCL tear that does not require surgery is far more routine and should prove "easier" to recover from.
Where do the Lakers stand right now? For starters, they lose their third leading scorer, second leading rebounder, and leading shot blocker. More importantly, they lose some inside edge. Pau Gasol isn't the cream puff some make him out to be, but he doesn't offer the interior intensity that Bynum does. Ronny Turiaf brought some of that edge to the lineup, but Turiaf is no longer a Laker.
However, it would be foolish to suggest that there will be a larger fall off just because a decent role player moved on. Lamar Odom will return to the starting lineup. He's done it before. Pau Gasol becomes the starting center. He's done it before. More minutes will be thrown at Luke Walton and Chris Mihm. They've done it before.
Virtually the same roster that finished last season is still there. In 2007-08, the Lakers actually had a better winning percentage (70.2 percent against 68.5 percent) and higher scoring offense (109.7 to 107.1) without Bynum in the lineup while only surrendering one half of a point more per game.
Back to the number one seed. Currently the Lakers hold it and a five-game lead over San Antonio. Losing Bynum and his recently improved play combined with a tougher second half schedule, it stands to reason that the lead could shrink. Consider a worst case scenario: the Lakers become soft in the paint, Odom remains inconsistent, the bench players don't respond to the increase in minutes, and Kobe turns selfish trying to keep the team afloat. Even with that, this team is still talented enough to play .500 ball the rest of the way. A 17-18 finish would give them 55 wins. If winning percentages hold out, San Antonio would finish with 57 wins (for a two-game lead), Denver 54, Portland 52, the Hornets 51, and Houston would have 50.
Those are the teams currently within ten games of Los Angeles. Anyone think the Lakers will only win 17 of their last 35 games?
A strong talent base remains. Kobe Bryant is still one of the best players in the league. Pau Gasol is still a scoring big man. Lamar Odom is still a versatile player. Derek Fisher, Trevor Ariza, Luke Walton, Vladimir Radmanovic, Jordan Farmar, and Sasha Vujacic are still solid role players who make a deep bench.
There is no doubt that Andrew Bynum is a talented and improving player. There is no question he is an asset to the Lakers. There is also no question that the Lakers can survive, thrive even, while he recovers.
Bynum would and will be a key player come playoff time. However, this team made the finals without him last year and there's no reason to think they couldn't do so again.