According to the latest reports from inside the L.A. Lakers organization, the team's starting center, Andrew Bynum, is expected to make his return on Tuesday in a game against the Washington Wizards.
Bynum will be a welcomed sight to the Lakers, who have struggled to protect the paint in recent weeks in his absence, as forwards Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, have been forced to play extended minutes to compensate for the team's current lack of front court depth.
Many Lakers fans have glossed over the team's issues by asserting that once Bynum returns, the team's rotation will be strengthened with Odom returning to the bench and the team's enforcer and defensive stopper mining the paint. Consequently, Bynum will cure all that ails the Lakers at present.
But will the Lakers struggles simply evaporate once one player returns to the lineup? And if Bynum's absence is the primary culprit for the Lakers struggles, doesn't that call into question the universal belief that they are the "deepest team in the league?"
Seriously, teams go without key players all the time and they still find ways to get more production from other areas. However, when I watch Lakers games of late, I have noticed many glaring issues that must be corrected even if Bynum returns.
The first issue is perimeter shooting. The Lakers are really struggling to keep defenses honest when all the focus has turned to Gasol or Kobe Bryant as no one has yet emerged as a steady, reliable threat from the field. Shannon Brown started the season on a tear, but in recent games he has not shot the ball well. He is 3-12 in his last two games and seems reluctant to use his athleticism.
Derek Fisher and Steve Blake are shooting barely 40% from the field on the season. One would presume this may improve once Bynum returns, as more open looks could lead to a higher field goal percentage, but right now these guys are still trying to find their offense.
Speaking of guys trying to find their offense, Ron Artest still looks uncomfortable at times in the triangle offense. He has been taking some very questionable shots of late (including the game against the Nets, where he shot 1-7), and is shooting only 36% from the field.
Generally, Artest's offensive struggles can be passively accepted by the Laker faithful if he does the job on the defensive end. But recent strong outings by Carmelo Anthony (who scored 32 in a Denver win over the Lakers) and Gilbert Arenas (who scored 23 albeit in a Laker victory) suggests that Artest is still searching for his rhythm on that end of the court as well.
But collectively the Lakers have struggled on the defensive end. They are currently ranked 15th in points allowed and 10th in 3-point field goal defense; however, their defensive effort against the Chicago Bulls in a loss, showed signs that they may be coming along in that department.
One more issue I see that Lakers having is guarding the point guard position. Both Blake and Fisher are veteran point guards who provide offense and leadership, but neither can stay with the steady stream of great point guards in the West, which include Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Tony Parker, who is having a phenomenal season with the West's best team, the San Antonio Spurs.
How the Lakers look to address their problems with guarding the point guard spot could go a long way to determining whether they are a top two seed or a top four seed by season's end. At one point, during a loss to the Utah Jazz, Phil Jackson chose to put Matt Barnes on Williams, but with Williams' quickness he simply drove right around Barnes.
It will be interesting to see though how big an impact Bynum has on reversing the team's fortunes upon his return; although one would think the Lakers expect it to be immediate and it must.
The Lakers are 17-7 and currently the third seed although the Thunder and Jazz are only a 1/2 behind. However, with big games coming up against the Heat, Mavericks and Spurs, the Lakers must solve their issues soon before they lose anymore ground on the Spurs and Mavericks.
The luxury the Lakers had the last three years was acquiring the number one seed in the conference and using their home-court advantage to overcome their inconsistent play on the road to win their series'.
However, emerging from the West as the fourth or even third seed is not the same as coming out of the West as the one seed and imagining a path to the finals that could go like this: Hornets in round one (with HCA), Mavericks in round two (without HCA), Spurs in round three (also without HCA) and then the finals verses Boston (without HCA) would be one that even the most optimistic Lakers fan would consider daunting.
Surely, the Lakers will play better following Bynum's return, but they must not wait until he does to correct the problems they currently have, or they risk making the aforementioned playoff scenario a distinct possibility.