With the playoffs rapidly approaching, and Andrew Bynum sidelined by a knee injury for the third straight year, it's time to ask a painful question for Laker fans.
If Bynum can't come back at full strength, are the Lakers the favorites to win the Western Conference any more?
Since Bynum went down with a strained Achilles tendon on March 19 , the once near-invincible Lakers look suddenly mortal. Very mortal.
The Lakers, who've gone 13-8 since the All-Star break, were on a six-game winning streak when Bynum went down against the Timberwolves.
See, we've known a few things about this year's Laker team for a while.
As ESPN LosAngeles' Arash Markezi wrote today, the drop-off from the Lakers' starting five to the Laker bench is meteoric. (Markezi writes, "The Lakers are not a deep team. They're not even a shallow team. They're a rock-solid, one-floor building with a shaky basement that probably would fail inspection.")
With Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown, and Jordan Farmar manning the point, speedy guards have been having their way with the Lakers' defense all year.
The Lakers' greatest strength to combat these deficiencies has been their front-line size. With Bynum at center, seven-footer Pau Gasol as the starting power forward, and 6'11" Lamar Odom coming off the bench as the team's sixth man, the Lakers had three walking trees that could disrupt their opponents defensively.
Without Bynum, the Lakers' greatest strength has suddenly disappeared.
"You've got to understand Andrew Bynum is not with the team,'' said Hawks forward Josh Smith. "He's a big part of their success. You definitely can't gauge where they are as a team right now because they're missing one of their most important pieces.''
That's true. And if Bynum comes back 100 percent healthy, like he's predicting he will, this could all be for naught.
The Lakers could roll through the Western Conference, meet up with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, and give basketball fans the championship series they've wanted for the past two years.
But what if Bynum doesn't come back fully healthy? It's not out of the question, given his injury history in the past few years.
Bynum missed the final 46 games of the 2007-08 regular season with a partially dislocated left kneecap, and never returned during the Lakers' run to the NBA Finals.
Phil Jackson said Bynum had a chance to make it back with the team before the playoffs started that year. Strike one.
Last year, Bynum went on an absolute tear at the end of January, posting a 42-15 game against the Clippers on Jan. 21, followed by four more double-doubles.
But four days after Bynum collapsed Gerald Wallace's lung with a flagrant foul on Jan. 27, Kobe banged knees with Bynum during a game against Memphis.
Two days later, the Lakers revealed that Bynum had torn his ACL in his right knee.
Bynum did return to the Lakers before the playoffs started last year, and managed to stay on the court for the Lakers' run to the championship, but the big man was clearly a shade of his former double-double machine self.
Fast-forward to this year, to the March 30 L.A. Times report that Bynum's original timetable has been thrown out the window.
The earliest he's expected to return now is on April 8, which would only give him four regular season games before the playoffs start.
"I haven't put any timetable on Andrew at all. We were hoping it'd be a couple weeks [total], but right now we're just letting that one go," Jackson told the Times.
Well, that certainly doesn't sound encouraging.
So, what does that mean for Bynum this year, and how will it affect the Lakers' playoff hopes?
When Bynum's injury was diagnosed this year, coach Jackson explained, “An Achilles’ or a leg injury is something you can’t really stay in great shape with. Taking off and landing, all your power moves, are something you’re going to have to adjust.”
Hmm. With only seven games left in the regular season as of today, that doesn't leave much time for Bynum to round back into basketball shape.
If his conditioning has fallen off as much as Jackson has hinted, that could spell the end for the Lakers' repeat dreams. (Assuming he even makes it back on the court.)
As the incomparable John Hollinger of ESPN pointed out today , the Lakers' first-round playoff opponent won't be the same kind of cakewalk that the Cavs will have in the East.
The Lakers are virtually guaranteed to face either Portland, San Antonio, or Oklahoma City in the first round. Since the All-Star break, the 'Blazers have gone 15-5, the Spurs have gone 15-8, and the Thunder are on a blazing 16-7 pace.
All three teams have the blazing guards to torch Fisher/Brown/Farmar. (Brandon Roy on Portland, George Hill and Tony Parker on San Antonio, and Russ Westbrook on OKC.)
And now, without a sizable...size advantage, not only could the Lakers not be the favorites to emerge from the Western Conference anymore, they could potentially lose in the first round.
Worse yet, in the same ESPN story about Bynum's injury , Odom revealed that he's been dealing with his own shoulder troubles.
"The part that I hate about the injury the most is that when I go to call on it, it might not answer me. I can go up with the basketball, make a strong move and then [the shoulder will] be like, 'No, not this time.' That's the part that aggravates me the most about it."
Folks, those first 50 games of the season weren't a mirage. If the Lakers are healthy, they're the prohibitive West favorites, no questions asked.
But given their current health situation, it's not necessarily safe to assume that the Lakers will enter the playoffs totally healthy.
And if their play in the past two weeks is any indication, the Lakers' playoff run could end much earlier than expected this season without a healthy Bynum manning the paint.