Being a Lakers fan has been quite the struggle the past three weeks. Watching the perennial powerhouse lose five of their last nine, four of which were to sub-.500 teams, makes watching a Nicholas Cage movie bearable.
Purple and gold lovers might say "Ross, that's all wrong, they only lost to three bad teams." True, but doesn't beating the Clippers by one in Staples Center feel like a 20-point loss?
The two-time defending NBA champs have looked sluggish since Thanksgiving, not realizing tryptophan's effects only last a couple of hours. Kobe Bryant complained to the press after Sunday's victory that the team isn't coming out with energy or motivation, which is never a good sign.
Compile that with the fact Phil Jackson is already calling out the refs, a move he normally saves for March, and Los Angeles has a problem.
Luckily, help is on the way. According to Mike Bresnahan, Lakers' beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, Andrew Bynum will play Tuesday against the Washington Wizards after a solid practice Monday. The center will make the most anxiously anticipated Lakers' debut since they drafted John Celestand in 1999.
In reality, Bynum's return is not only the return of one player; it's the return of sanity. If he can keep out of injury trouble, the Lakers can return to, and possibly improve upon, the dominating ways they stared the season with.
No "If," however, has ever been bigger.
The one man awaiting Bynum's impact most is Pau Gasol. Over the last nine games, the Spaniard is shooting only 43 percent from the field, a sizable drop from how he started the year, while averaging more than 41 minutes per game, nearly six more than his career average.
Between the center and power forward positions, there are 96 total minutes. If Bynum merely plays 20 minutes, Lamar Odom and Gasol can split the rest, giving each 38 minutes, roughly the amount they have averaged their whole careers.
As Bynum gets healthier, Gasol and Odom's minutes decrease, and that makes three rested interior players, not including Derrick Caracter and Theo Ratliff (when he returns) for garbage time.
Can you hear Gasol's knees clapping?
Fortunately, Bynum's impact won't stop there. While the Lakers still remain in the top-10 in scoring, blocks and steals, his return should help their two glaring weaknesses: opponents' points per game and rebounding.
The Lake Show is 15th in the league in points allowed, and dead last in offensive rebounding, two stats that make the pantheon of great Lakers bigs cry. Not only will Bynum's mere presence clog the interior, forcing more long distance and/or low percentage shots, but he has the length, strength and positioning to hit the glass on every play, something Odom as a starter does not.
Don't read that wrong, though, Odom is a great rebounder. The only knock is that he's much more perimeter oriented than Bynum, and gets many rebounds on tip-outs. Bynum and Gasol's combined length prevents the tip-out from occurring, securing possession for the Lakers.
Second-chance points can be more demoralizing than anything, and for a team whose leader is questioning the players' motivation, it's critical Bynum gets back to business on the window.
Offensively, however, the Lakers might have a little discomfort. The difference between Odom and Bynum in the game is enormous due to playing styles, and since Bynum doesn't have the perimeter game, the key will be a bit more packed with defenders when Bryant and Co. drive.
Fortunately, Bynum is his own solution. While not known for his passing, he does have excellent vision from the post and back-to-the-basket moves Odom can't fathom. The Lakers can change their offense when No. 17 enters the game by feeding him the ball down low and working around him.
Or, Kobe will be stuck going six-for-24 again. And again. Their choice.
So what should Lakers fans want to see? Well, certainly don't expect the Bynum who played last season immediately. Instead, expect a team that slowly returns to its playoff ways. He may not be dynamic, but when the team gets used to a presence, the NBA will have to look out.
Please note, all of that hinges on that "If" hanging over Bynum's head. So just hope it goes away quickly.
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