Has it become cliché and predictable, yet, to declare a certain rotation position a Lakers strength, and one in which they will have the advantage over their opponents? So far, only at the Point Guard position do the Lakers appear mortal — and even there, it's hard to complain.
I'm sure this will only feed the perceptions of those who see Lakers fans as being incorrigible "homers" who couldn't see the dark side of genocide if it was carried out by those wearing Purple and Gold — but there's nothing I can do about that. The fact of the matter is that the Center position, for the Lakers, ranges from very good to unstoppable. There, I said it.
Where exactly they fall on that very positive spectrum depends on — you guessed it — Andrew Bynum. Fortunately, he has looked very good so far, this year. Unfortunately, all of that means absolutely nothing.
By now, I hope you'll all agree with me that it is pure foolishness to expect and count on anything significant from Andrew Bynum. The kid has shown flashes of brilliance, but he still has yet to prove that he can maintain that level of play over the course of an entire year. Heck, for that matter, he also still needs to prove that he can stay out of foul trouble long enough to get any work done on the court.
So consider this my disclaimer: We're not going to avoid the question of what this team can do if Andrew Bynum can keep this up; however, everything we say here about his potential to take this team to another level, and to dominate the center position, should be taken with an entire shaker of salt. It should be understood that we are talking hypotheticals and possibilities here, not proclaiming a Bynum-centric L.A. dynasty.
With that in mind, we're going to work backwards, starting with what we can count on, and then getting into what we can hope for, but not yet expect with any great confidence. And what we can count on speaks Spanish and sports a grizzly beard.
Yes, I understand that in the ideal situation, Gasol will be a Power Forward first, and a Center second. But what we have also learned is that Gasol is one of the best centers in NBA, and as Laker commentators Stu Lantz and Joel Myers have so often reminded us, he is one of the most reliable players in the game. Night in and night out, you know what you're going to get from Pau. This means that if Bynum isn't performing up to par, or if (can I get a few million collective knocks on wood, please?) he's injured, we will always know that we can count on Pau Gasol to hold down the fort at the Center position — and do so better than most centers. The fact that we have fairly reliable depth at the Power Forward position makes this a luxury we can afford.
Gasol's strengths are obvious, and be honest, I'm not sure they can be expressed any better than John Krolik did for SLAM Online. Kids, that's not optional reading; it's required. There will be a test tomorrow. Go read it now, or you don't get any dinner.
What may be less obvious is that Pau Gasol seems to have eliminated many of the weaknesses that typically come along with a player of his build and style. He's a soft shooter, quick and light on his feet, long and lanky. Typically, that would mean that he lacks strength and can easily be pushed around by the bigger, thicker, heavier centers of the NBA. Like Dwight Howard.
Except that Howard didn't dominate Gasol. In fact, it was much the other way around. Despite his wiry frame and the monstrous athleticism of the New Superman, Gasol was very effective on offense, and wreaked havoc on Howard on defense. And that wasn't the first time we saw that kind of effort and play out of Gasol. After being labeled "soft" following the Lakers' 2008 Finals loss, Gasol returned last year determined to answer his critics. And throughout both the regular season and the playoffs, he proved that he can be both soft and strong, both quick and tough.
My one concern with Gasol at Center, when it comes to specific match-ups, is Shaquille O'Neal. Yao Ming is out for the year, and if Howard can't push Gasol around, then no other center save Shaq could. Shaq isn't just big and strong — he's 330 pounds. He's got the sheer bulk to uproot a much lighter player like Gasol, and move him as he sees fit. And unlike Howard, he has the post-up skills to potentially do just that.
As long as Bynum isn't injured, I don't think this is a major concern, for reasons that I will address in a moment. If he is injured? Your guess is as good as mine. Shaq could be a tougher task for Gasol than Howard was, but don't expect Gasol (or the Lakers' coaching staff, for that matter) to make it easy for Shaq. Gasol and his coaches are crafty and clever, and Shaq doesn't have the athleticism he had when he was a Laker.
Should we perhaps move on to discuss the Lakers true Center?
First, while the topic is still fresh, let's talk about Bynum's role when it comes to Shaq. We've already discussed what would happen if the Lakers met the Cavs without the use of Bynum's services. So let's talk about that matchup with Bynum in the picture.
Now, I know that injury is not the only concern with Bynum. Productivity and foul trouble are other concerns. Even when he was able to stay on the floor, he didn't exactly blow our socks off in the 2009 Playoffs. What if he continues to struggle in the Playoffs, experiencing the same issues in 2010 that he did in 2009? I don't expect it, especially if he can play the entire season without injuries, but even if that's the case, I don't consider it a big problem against Shaq.
Against the Cavs, Bynum's only purpose will be to offset Shaq. Make the Big Fatburger work on offense, body up to him on defense. This, Bynum can do. Keep in mind also that in such a match-up, Bynum will be extremely motivated, as he always has been against Shaq. So we don't need him to be a superstar; we really just need him to play defense, and while that has been a concern at times with the young fella, it has never been while Shaq was on the court.
So let's leave the Shaq question and look more at the bigger picture.
The good news is that Bynum has looked very, very good in the preseason. How good? 20.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks through 6 very consistent games, while shooting .575 from the field and a very respectable .792 from the charity stripe. I know, I know — it's the preseason. But bear in mind that he did NOT look anything close to this good last preseason. This may not make him an elite center yet, but it certainly means he is well ahead of last year's curve. It also seems to indicate that he isn't struggling to find his rhythm the way he did for so long last year. Throw in 82+ games of good health, and the young star could develop (that's a key word) into a tremendous force on both ends of the floor.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Yes, he's putting up 20+ points per game, but where we really need him is on defense! That's very true. On the other hand, if you remember who you're talking about, you will realize that there are defensive positives here, as well. As a player, Andrew Bynum's defensive game feeds off of his offense. If he is involved offensively, getting early baskets and scoring points, he very quickly becomes motivated and focused on defense. Thus, while an offensively dominant Andrew Bynum is far from a necessity for the Lakers, we should still look at Bynum getting his points as a Good Thing, because it will fuel his defensive effort and intensity.
To that end, it's good to see that the Lakers seem to be making a deliberate effort to get Bynum good scoring opportunities. Surely they also realize that when Bynum feels good about his offensive involvement, he works hard on defense. Their job, then, is easy.
Now, let's talk hypotheticals. The level of competition will be taken up a notch in the regular season, but I think it's fairly reasonable to assume that, given good health, Bynum will be able to grow with it. What if he becomes a 20-10 guy? That's one more weapon to take the heat off of Kobe (and Gasol, for that matter), and leaves 4 players on the floor that the other team needs to double. At the same time, that creates one of the biggest, strongest front lines imaginable, and one that will be able to wreak havoc defensively.
On top of all this, versatility will again be a Lakers strength. The length, quickness, and shooting touch of Gasol, and the strength, size, and brute force of Andrew Bynum, provides a favorable match-up for nearly every situation imaginable. Furthermore, this gives the Lakers versatility across all three of their non-guard positions. Gasol can play Center or Power Forward, and Lamar Odom can play Power Forward or Small Foward. The depth across the front line will be formidable.
It will also mean that the Lakers' bigs should reach the playoffs more rested, and therefore physically more prepared for a long drive to the Finals. Where other teams will have to put in lower caliber players while their bigs rest, the Lakers can play starter-caliber players at Center and both Forward positions for nearly the entire game, and keep them well rested at the same time.
Meanwhile, with a healthy Bynum and another post threat at the Small Forward position, look for the Lakers to really run the triangle from the inside out. They've got the size, strength, and post-up versatility to be hugely effective in the post, and that, in turn, will enable them to run a deadly inside-out game that Kobe Bryant and shooters like Derek Fisher, Sasha Vujacic (more wood knocking, please), and maybe even Adam Morrison can really take advantage of.
Bottom Line: Assuming Andrew Bynum can stay healthy this year (spectacles, testicles, watch, wallet...), they truly will have the advantage at every position on the court but Point Guard. Meanwhile, they'll have the size, length, and quickness to deal adequately with the small, quick point guards that get past Fisher — and there is still more upside than down in both Jordan Farmar (who I believe still has what it takes to be the Lakers PG of the future) and Shannon Brown.
Yes, Bynum remains a wild card and a complete uncertainty until he makes it through an entire season without a major injury. We won't count our chickens before they hatch. But there is potential here for this to become arguably the most talented team in history, and they have considerable depth to boot. Should Bynum remain healthy enough to be able to really find and maintain a rhythm, and to be able to grow over the course of an entire season, the adjustments made by the Association's other contenders won't be nearly enough.
To conclude, I'd like to start a Lakers Fan Petition to Phil Jackson: Bench Andrew Bynum in Memphis!