The champagne was still being spraying around the locker room when the question popped up. How would you rate this Lakers team compared to other Laker championship teams?
It didn’t take long for the media to start their comparison game. But it’s not even a matter of apples and oranges, simply because those oranges haven’t ripened yet.
The other Laker teams have won multiple championships. This team is still one-and-one in a two-year span. If they don’t repeat next year, then the answer is obvious. If they do, then let the comparisons begin.
There are only three components remaining from the three-peat team of seven years ago—Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, and Phil Jackson.
All three are much older, but also much wiser. Bryant has learned to involve his teammates. Fisher has learned how to have faith in himself and his jump shot, even when it isn’t dropping. Jackson has learned to trust the younger guys and let them learn from Bryant and Fisher.
Though he has aged, Bryant still has four or five good years left. But with Fisher it is probably just one or two, and for Jackson, this may have been his last hurrah.
Of course, the biggest component missing from that three-peat team is Shaquille O’Neal. As soon as he left, it became apparent that one player alone could not replace him.
The Lakers tried with guys like Laddy Divac, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm, and Andrew Bynum, who is still a work in progress.
However, it wasn’t until they got Pau Gasol and played him in tandem with Lamar Odom last year, and both Bynum and Odom this year, that the Lakers found themselves back in the NBA Finals.
Now that the champagne has been emptied and all that is left is the parade, there are two questions looming that will determine if this team can ever be compared to the other Laker championship teams.
The first question: Whatever happened to Andrew Bynum?
If you recall, Bynum was so dominant during December and January, before he went down with another knee injury.
Pundits quickly pointed out that Bynum’s separated kneecap the year before was one of the main reasons that the Lakers lost in the 2008 Finals to the Celtics. They also speculated that the Lakers would win the 2009 Finals if a healthy Bynum returned.
Well, a healthy Bynum did return, but for some unknown reason he quickly disappeared in the playoffs. After making his presence known in the last four regular season games, he became a non-factor during the playoffs. His personal foul production was running nearly neck-and-neck with his point production.
However, should the Bynum of December-January become a permanent Laker installation throughout the season and the playoffs, this could become a Laker team that will rival those of the Shaq era, at least.
The mystery of his appearance and eventual disappearance may take a team of coaches, trainers, orthopedists, and possibly even psychologists to solve. What it won’t take is money.
Bynum was well provided for in the person of Mitch Kupchak, who opened Dr. Jerry Buss’ coffers to the young center before it was even time to do so. Now the Lakers are stuck with an approximately $14 million annual debit over the next four seasons for a young center who has only shown brilliance in December and January.
If the Lakers do solve the Bynum mystery, that could affect their answer to the second question: Who do the Lakers keep? Lamar Odom or Trevor Ariza?
With Bryants $21 million contract about to be upgraded at any time during the next two seasons, Bynum’s $14 million already on the books, and Pau Gasol’s $15 million stretching the Buss’ bank account to the limit, there doesn’t seem to be any room to upgrade Odom’s $14 million expiring contract.
Trevor Ariza, who has been playing on an expiring $3 million contract could possibly be retained for the mid-level exemption. Of course, that depends on how much other teams are willing to offer the young defensive standout with an improved three-point shot.
Lose both Odom and Ariza, and the Lakers lose nearly any chance of repeating in 2010.
However, should the Lakers solve the Bynum mystery, they could afford to lose Odom and, instead, retain Ariza.
But if Bynum cannot remain healthy and return to his peak level of performance, then the Lakers need to juggle the numbers so that they can keep Odom.
The only way that the team can keep both players is to go deep into the luxury tax. That of curse will mean less money for the Buss family, and the good doctor may have to forego some of those costly poker tournaments.
Instead, Buss will have to play with the hand that Mitch Kupchak dealt him.
Will Buss stand pat and ante up to the luxury tax? Or will he discard one or two of his face cards? The only thing known for sure is that Andrew Bynum is the wild card.