With over a quarter of the season in the books, things have not gone as planned for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers. Both teams have lost a key star to injury, as Andrew Bynum has yet to play a game for Philly and L.A.'s Steve Nash has appeared in just two contests.
And yet, the upstart Sixers (12-11) have ground out numerous victories while the Lakers (10-14) have foundered. If the season ended on Dec. 15, Philly would have the final playoff spot in the East while the Lakers would be out of luck in the 12th spot.
Even at full strength, the Lakers are an old team who lack a deep bench. For the Sixers, numerous guys on the roster have flashed star-quality play in Andrew Bynum's absence. Adding a healthy Bynum would be a timely boon to their offensive output and interior defense.
These two squads meet on Dec. 16 in Philadelphia. It had been slated as the first showdown between Bynum and his former team, after the Lakers shipped him off to acquire Dwight Howard. Instead, it will be a matchup between a team on the rise and a team that is sinking, with Bynum merely an observer.
The Lakers are playing middling basketball at home (7-6) and have posted a terrible record on the road (3-8). The Sixers, by contrast, are holding home court (8-6) and playing nearly .500 ball on the road (4-5).
This is especially baffling when you consider that Philadelphia is giving up more points than it scores (minus-2.3 points being just the 10th-best point differential in the East), whereas the Lakers have a positive points differential (fifth best in the West).
The Lakers still have Howard and a healthy Kobe Bryant. However, Nash is recovering from a broken leg as well as subsequent nerve issues; Pau Gasol is dealing with tendinitis in his knees.
The 76ers traded away Olympian Andre Iguodala (to the Denver Nuggets) to get Bynum from the Lakers. But with Bynum being shut down because of knee trouble, Philly lacks a true star to carry them.
Speaking to the media on Nov. 25 (per Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News), Bynum stated: "My left knee is still really sore, right knee is actually better, so that's good. It's just pain, just by walking around. Worst case scenario it's another month."
A month would put his return to basketball activities somewhere around Christmas Day, which would be a nice present for the Sixers.
He was targeted to be the cornerstone of the 76ers, though his left knee has not cooperated. But Philly has played admirably in Bynum's absence, allowing just 94.6 points per game, fifth best in the conference.
Tremendous praise is due to Doug Collins. He has gotten the most out of his players thus far this season.
Jrue Holiday has played like an All-Star, averaging 18 points and nine assists (although he is ailing with a sprained left foot per the Associated Press).
Jason Richardson looks rejuvenated (11.7 points per game), and Evan Turner has blossomed in Iguodala's absence, posting 15 points, seven boards and four dimes.
Thaddeus Young is excelling and putting up 15 points with seven rebounds. The only disappointment has been Bynum's replacement, the middling Spencer Hawes (8.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.2 blocks).
For the record, Bynum averaged some hard-to-match numbers in 2011-12—to the tune of 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.
Overall, the Sixers have played strong defense and limited their turnovers thus far, so they tend to hang around late in games. This is a crucial element for a young team without its new superstar that is just finding some chemistry.
One big hurdle, however, is that the 76ers play in the Atlantic, one of the strongest divisions in the NBA. The New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics look like locks for the playoffs, and even the Toronto Raptors have greatly improved.
But Philly has looked strong even without Andrew Bynum. When he is able to return, they could be aiming for a fifth or sixth seed (possibly still against the surging Hawks).
The Lakers, on the other hand, have an easier road through the Pacific Division with the lowly Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns to feast upon. Currently, the surprising Golden State Warriors and the deep-rostered L.A. Clippers are ahead of them.
The Lakers are on their third coach of the season, which is hard to believe. They selected Mike D'Antoni to lead their team, and they knew what he brought with him. He tends to neglect defense and runs an up-tempo, transition offense, which is best when captained by Steve Nash.
But the Lakers are struggling to adapt and now have Chris Duhon running the point due to injuries. They are an aged, slow team that lacks depth, and the stars are turning the ball over left and right. Kobe is leading the NBA in turnovers and Dwight Howard is fifth.
While the focus has been on Howard's poor free-throw shooting, the Lakers also have a 2-10 record when Bryant scores 30 or more points. He's leading the league in scoring, but the team isn't winning. They have relied on Kobe to do too much without lending him much support.
There are no excuses for the Lakers' poor start. It's not just because Duhon is playing point with Steve Blake and Nash injured. It's also because the team in general has shot poorly from the free-throw line and turned the ball over far too often, the latter contributing to their poor defense in transition.
So as currently poised, the 76ers look better than the Lakers, even without Andrew Bynum; although the teams' opposite point differentials suggest otherwise. As weak as the Lakers defense has been, Philly has struggled to score points, averaging the third fewest in the East.
But the real question is: What will these teams look like at full strength?
Nash expects to be back at practice in the next few days (per the Los Angeles Times), and while Gasol has no timetable for his return (according to Kurt Helin of NBC Sports), his tendinitis should be on the mend before too long.
Nash and D'Antoni will certainly increase the offense, but Nash won't alleviate the team's lackluster defense.
Gasol will likely be posting up more, after Kobe told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, "He needs to be in the post" (via the Los Angeles Times). We'll see if D'Antoni takes the superstar's advice.
The Lakers have these question marks looming over them, while the Sixers have been jelling.
When Bynum is able to make his debut in Philly, they will be gaining a potent presence in the paint. But he sounds cautious about his return (per Cooney's article):
...As far as a threshold on the pain it's more about, I think, protecting and being cautious about my knees. I feel this pain walking around so I think it would be kind of silly, because if I start running or doing anything basketball [related] because it's sure going to get worse. Until it heals up we're being cautious and taking our time and giving it time to heal...Why risk it when you have time to come back and be 100 percent? My right knee is feeling really, really good. I would definitely test it on the right side.
Such vagaries will leave Sixers fans frustrated, but if Bynum can return before the All-Star break, he will drastically improve the starting center position and enhance an already proficient lineup.
Nick Young has just returned. Holiday, Turner and Thaddeus Young have been stuffing the stat sheet. With Bynum, the 76ers could be a serious threat to the best teams in the East.
Conversely, the return of Nash and Gasol won't necessarily fix the Lakers' problems. They are a team with an aged core (don't forget Antawn Jamison or Metta World Peace), and they lack the depth and speed to execute a run-and-gun offense without injuries and exhaustion.
While the Lakers won't persist in losing nearly 60 percent of their games, they hardly look poised to be the Western Conference behemoths that many prognosticators pegged them as.
For Philly, the return of Andrew Bynum can only make them stronger than they have already looked. As surprising as it may be, the Sixers with a healthy Bynum will indeed be better than the Lakers.
Note: All statistics are accurate as of December 15.