Bynum's latest knee injury a huge setback for Lakers -- and Bynum
Many Lakers said they felt a healthy Bynum could put them over the top this year
Bynum was the only major addition to the Lakers' or the Celtics' roster since June
He had been working extensively with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kurt Rambis
The chatter in the Lakers' postgame locker room Friday night sounded like the stuff you hear on the other side of the glass, outside the nursery. All the proud papas were oohing and aahing and koochie-kooing, even though none of them, chronologically, was old enough to actually be Andrew Bynum's father (not even Arkansas-Little Rock Class of '96's Derek Fisher). So let's go with father figures or just big-brother figures, in the way one after another L.A. teammate talked about the 21-year-old. If jerseys had buttons, they'd have been popping.
"It's nice to see him doing it every night right now,'' Luke Walton said, after Bynum scored 27 points with 15 rebounds in 30 minutes of a 132-119 victory at Minnesota. It was his fifth consecutive double-double, a stretch over 10 days in which the 7-foot, 285-pound center averaged 26.2 points and 13.8 boards.
Coach Phil Jackson said: "He's playing above the crowd, so to speak, in many ways. This is a stepping-out point for him, especially in having an honor last week, Player of the Week in the Western Conference ... He's a better player now than he was when he got hurt a year ago. But it's taken him this month, January, to get back and feel like, `I'm over my injury, it's a year ago and I'm prepared to go.'"
Pau Gasol didn't hesitate when I asked him if adding Bynum, this Bynum, to the crew that reached the Finals last June gave the Lakers the best acquisition in the league. "Pretty much. What do you think? It's pretty exciting, yeah," said the All-Star forward, who was last season's best acquisition. "It's a matter of continuing in that path. It's not easy to play at this level for a month, two months, the whole year. And playoff level is a whole different story for him -- basically, he hasn't had that experience. He's got the talent and the moves, so he's just got to continue to work and stay healthy -- two factors, one you can control and the other one you can't."
No kidding. Barely 21 hours later, it happened -- again. Kobe Bryant drove inside at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, missed his shot and crashed into Bynum's right leg. The big guy grabbed his knee and was done, five minutes into the first quarter. An MRI exam Monday pushed his layoff into the range of eight to 12 weeks, based on the torn medial collateral ligament it revealed.
Last year, it was the Grizzlies, too, but at Staples Center on Jan. 13 when Bynum suffered a dislocation and bruised bone in his left knee. That one was supposed to cost him eight to 12 weeks too, until he missed the season's final 46 games and underwent arthroscopic surgery on May 21 to remove cartilage and otherwise clean up the knee. The Lakers, starting Gasol at center, lost the Finals in six games to Boston.
"He would have made a difference," said Mychal Thompson, former Lakers big man and now their radio analyst. "The Lakers wouldn't have lost in six games with him on the floor. They sure wouldn't have gotten beat by 39 points in a game with him on the floor [131-92 in the clincher]. It definitely goes the distance."
Never mind what might have been. Based on their 37-9 start, their lust for a rematch and the fact that Bynum was the only appreciable addition to either the Lakers' or the Celtics' roster since last June, the players and the fans already were focused on what might be. Until the big fella grabbed another knee.
What is the flip side of giddy? What is excited turned inside-out? This is the Greg Oden saga writ Hollywood; the Trail Blazers still are focused on the future, while the Lakers are otherwise ready now. Even before the full extent of Bynum's latest injury was known, the tone of the proud papas had changed considerably. It was like, standing there in the nursery, they had just learned something disquieting about the milk man.
"This is a team that went to the Finals last year that we put on the floor, so they're confident in what they can do," Jackson said at Monday's shootaround in New York. "We know we're going to miss his presence, his rebounding ability. But this is a very capable team."
Very capable? Oh yeah, that strikes a lot of fear. The Christians were very capable, too, and that didn't stop the lions from licking their chops.
"I think having Andrew in the lineup makes us a dominant team," Bryant said Monday. "With him out of the lineup, we're still a great team."
The Lakers were 28-9 after the Gasol "donation" last Feb. 1, 29-16 prior to the deal, and then went 12-3 through the first three playoff rounds. But what the Grizzlies gaveth last season in Gasol, they tooketh away in their uncanny two meetings/two mishaps regarding Bynum. With the budding Bynum in the middle, Gasol back at power forward and Walton on the other side, with Lamar Odom and Vladimir Radmanovic both coming off the bench, the Lakers had one of the NBA's longest and deepest frontcourts. That figured to come in handy all the way through the postseason, up to and including matchups with the Cavaliers (Anderson Varejao, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace) and particularly the Celtics (Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett).
"With Andrew, we can put him on Perkins," Walton said. "Then we can use Pau to do his skill work and be away from the basket and make shots."
Said Gasol: "It allows me to give him space. My man is aware of me, so he's not going to go to help on Andrew. So I try to give him space and go to the offensive glass, and be prepared to hit open jumpers, because at some point they're going to collapse into the lane and he can kick it out.''
That, after all, is how much Bynum's game had grown, from his breakout 42 points and 15 boards against the Clippers Jan. 21 to his 23 and 13 in the first three quarters at Minnesota the other night. Long hours in the gym -- alone or working with Lakers assistants Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Kurt Rambis -- countless short pep talks from Bryant and a few mind games from Jackson had gotten him back to, and beyond, the point where he got hurt a year ago.
"If he doesn't [know how good he can be], I'm always telling him," Bryant said. "Because that's what I expect from him."
The youngest player ever selected in the NBA draft when the Lakers took him out of St. Joseph's (N.J.) with the 10th pick, Bynum also became the youngest (18 years, 6 days) to ever play in a regular season game. He developed slowly, shedding baby fat, bumping from 1.6 ppg and 1.7 rpg in token minutes that first season to 7.8 and 5.9 in 2006-07. Last season, he was at 13.1 and 10.2 when he went down.
Bynum's tutorials with Abdul-Jabbar and Rambis intensified this season, and it showed. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon? How about three or four degrees of Kareem? If Abdul-Jabbar could school Bynum in moves that he used, moves that were used against him and moves used against great centers who eventually faced him, you could connect dots right through Moses Malone, Bob Lanier, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Dolph Schayes and George Mikan.
"Working with Rambis and Kareem, he's got to get at least 50 percent better," Thompson said. "Obviously he deserves a lot of credit, because he saw the opportunity in that and took advantage of it. If you're willing to listen to them and you've got some basketball IQ, you're going to succeed."
Where had Abdul-Jabbar helped Bynum the most? "Footwork and soft touch around the rim," the young center said. "Just being able to control the game and play hard every time. I think I'm able to be a force for a longer period of time ... I want to go out and try to be the first one down the court every time and try to grab every rebound. If you do those two things, in order to play that way, you have to be active."
That's all physical. The tough part now, again, will be mental. Bynum did enough sitting and watching last spring. Then came the grind of rehab, followed by the uncertainty and the diminished trust in his body that only time and repeated, rigorous tests can restore. As Jackson said, it took Bynum almost a full year from the last time he got hurt to get "back to feeling 100 percent or close to it." The coach added: "That's a big part of it, [Bynum] knowing that he's got that ability to move without considering his legs."
It will take a while again for Bynum to feel that way. Maybe even longer, this time, for the Lakers.