We take a break from our regular Kobe Bryant-related scheduling to provide you with some analysis of the current Lakers team, and how the absence (and hopeful return) of Andrew Bynum affects their championship hopes.
Over at TrueHoop, Henry Abbott quotes Nuggets Coach George Karl, who suggests that the Lakers have been even better without Bynum than they were with him. Here is what Coach Karl had to say:
As Abbott points out, it is “a question to be pondered, and one many worried about before the season: Do Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol stifle each other?”
The Lakers have indeed been very good without Bynum — arguably even better than they were with him. What is the reason for this? It could be a case of Pau Gasol being freed up by Bynum’s absence in the post… but while Gasol has joined Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom in upping his production since Bynum’s absence, I think the difference has little to do with The Spaniard.
So what has been the difference? Lakers fans would be quick to point to Kobe, who has a well established history of stepping up his game to carry his team when they suffer from injuries. But if you thought that Kobe Bryant has been the biggest difference for this team in Bynum’s absence, you’d be wrong.
In fact, the biggest factor in the Lakers’ smashing success without Bynum has not been Bryant or Gasol (though both have been absolutely brilliant), but Lamar Odom.
Before the season started, many questioned whether Bynum and Gasol would get in each other’s way on the court. As it turns out, they did not. Gasol much prefers the face-up, mid-range game; he’s deadly from both elbows, very good from the mid-range baseline, and lights out from the free throw line. He is capable of facing the basket and driving past his defender, and he’s a fantastic finisher — and playing with Bynum and Kobe Bryant gives him plenty of opportunities to catch and finish.
Bynum, meanwhile, installs himself in that low post area that makes Gasol uncomfortable. He’s developing a short jumpshot that may one day make him very difficult to defend, but his bread and butter is his back-to-the-basket game, where his size, strength, and physicality are quickly becoming lethal. He is most comfortable in those aspects of the game that Gasol struggles with, and vice versa. As such, they are the perfect complement to each other.
What has changed the most in the last 13 games has been Lamar Odom. Since Bynum went down, Odom has been absolutely dominant. But this is not simply a case of Odom “rising to the challenge” and “stepping it up” in the Lakers’ time of need, as Kobe has been known to do in the past. In fact, Odom is just picking up from where he left off last year (not counting the Finals).
The Kobe-Gasol-Bynum-Fisher lineup has been so good this year, and Odom’s role so reduced, that we had kind of forgotten how good Odom had been while playing off of Kobe and Gasol. In particular, Gasol and Odom form the best passing front line in the NBA, bar none. Last year, we discovered how good Odom could be when he wasn’t expected to be a primary scoring option. He is most effective playing on the weak side, diving to the hoop, crashing the boards, and generally taking advantage of all of the attention given to Bryant and Gasol on a nightly basis.
While this was also true to an extent with Kobe and Bynum early last year, Gasol’s passing ability in the post is what maximizes Odom’s potential in that role. Playing off of two fantastic passers in Kobe and Gasol who can always find him, Odom punishes teams for paying too much attention to the other two, cashing in on easy dunks and layups, and creating second-chance opportunities.
Odom has been the difference since Bynum went down. It’s possible that what Odom provides, when he’s put in a position that maximizes his potential, is more valuable to the Lakers on many nights than what Bynum brings. And it’s when he’s playing off of Kobe and Gasol that that Odom shows up.
Of course, there’s always the issue of last year’s Finals, where both Gasol and Odom struggled, and the two-man game that had been so effective for them for half a season was greatly limited. And that is why the Lakers need Bynum back — because with him, they can go to either style. The options are there for Phil Jackson to exploit, based on the matchup of the moment.
There may come a time, in the near future, when Bynum realizes his full potential, becoming so dominant in the low post that having him on the floor is almost always the best option. For now, however, Kobe-Gasol-Odom could very well be the Lakers’ best lineup. In that scenario, Bynum’s truest value may be that he makes it much harder for teams like the Celtics to bully the Lakers’ frontline and take them out of the game.