Yes, Andrew Bynum(notes) will be returning to game action next Tuesday against the Washington Wizards. And you've heard this before. The Lakers center seems perpetually either "nearing a return to the Laker lineup" or "still recovering from" whatever. To say nothing of the twice-yearly "will be out six to eight weeks."
But while you're allowed to roll your eyes or anticipate the next time he needs to be helped off the court, understand what Bynum's presence on the defending champs means. Even after dropping four straight last week, the Lakers are on pace for 59 wins, and the squad is first in offensive efficiency. And they're about to add a talented 7-footer who will sometimes outplay two teammates who are often the best players in the NBA on any given night.
Bynum is a bit of a joke, we know. He passed on undergoing knee surgery last summer (after gutting through the playoffs on one leg) after Phil Jackson gave him the go-ahead to clear his head and fly off to watch the World Cup. He's always injured, even if it isn't his fault (he's been run into a few times, once by a teammate). And he kind of looks like Tracy Morgan, who is full of jokes.
He also turns the Lakers into a terrifying defensive team, though. Los Angeles is 13th in defensive efficiency right now, and while current center Pau Gasol(notes) is light years ahead of where he was in terms of strength and foot movement four years ago, he's still Pau Gasol. Lamar Odom(notes) may clear the defensive glass with gusto, but he's still Lamar Odom. Andrew Bynum, a legitimate helping center, changes all that.
And, given heavy minutes, he's nearly a 20 and 10 guy. Or, don't give him heavy minutes. Whatevs, Phil Jackson. Do understand, though, that for just about every 40 minutes he plays, Bynum is going to give you 20 points and 10 rebounds. And efficiently, too. He's a 23-year-old All-Star caliber center, and he's about to be dropped into the lineup of the two-time defending champions. No, life isn't fair.
Or, as is usually the case, life is only as fair as Kobe Bryant(notes) makes it. Because it's on him to turn this potentially brilliant Laker team into something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The only chinks in Los Angeles' armor this year come in the form of those close six losses in 21 tries (each of those games could have been won in the fourth quarter) and the team's mediocre defense. This isn't to say that something's gone wrong so far -- it hasn't. It's to tell you that there is nothing wrong with the Los Angeles Lakers that can't be fixed by the Los Angeles Lakers. And it starts with the bigs cutting hard to the pinch post to receive a pass, and Kobe Bryant giving up the ball and letting the offense work for him. Because the defense, with Bynum back, will take care of itself.
Bynum won't be great shakes right away. He'll be pretty lousy, actually, because he hasn't played a healthy game of pro basketball in nearly a year. It's going to take him a few weeks to get his wind back, and for his hands to catch up to NBA speed. Or Knights of Columbus speed, really. So while adrenaline and a thin front line could make his debut against the Wizards a great thing next Tuesday, the next few games will likely be ruddy awful.
But as a Christmas present? Bynum will be as good as they get. If I'm the Lakers, I'd rather have him than a stupid girly Lexus with a bow on the top.
And this is where Kobe has to think June in January. He has to give up the ball, feed Pau Gasol while he's in his prime, watch as Bynum works his way toward easy baskets and ratchet up the wins and easy buckets. Along the way -- because nobody likes LeBron James(notes) anymore, Kevin Durant(notes) can't hit a 3-pointer to save his life and nobody wants to recognize the sort of amazing year Dwight Howard(notes) is having -- Kobe will start to hear his name at the top of the MVP voting, because writers like voting for the best player on the best team.
A lot has to go right, though. I understand this. And I also understand that the Lakers have won championships (barely, in seven games) with Kobe shooting WAY too many jumpers and Bynum just about out of it. Andrew could get injured again, Bryant could toss up another 20-footer again.
But if things stay healthy, and the Lakers play it right? This could be the most dominant championship of them all. This could be the team that we pick, out of this era's Laker championship run (should it continue, or whenever it ends) that we hold up against the all-time greats.
It starts, as it always does in Los Angeles, with health and with ball movement.