Once again, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in the unenviable position of having to deal with an injury to Andrew Bynum. The severity of the injury is not yet known; Bynum is scheduled to undergo an MRI right about now. Dex provided some good knowledge regarding strains in last night's recap, so check that out, but the general consensus is that Bynum is probably looking at anywhere from 2-6 weeks (a prognosis that will be much more specific after today). While this injury is probably not nearly as serious as previous episodes, it still has the potential to be just as damaging to the Lakers.
So now we must turn our attention to how the Lakers will respond strategically. I won't say this injury came at the worst possible time (unless it does actually take Bynum out for the playoffs, which is unlikely), but on a scale of "meh" to "We're f***ed", this is definitely a son of a bitch.
There are so many reasons this injury does significant damage to the Lakers. For one, Bynum has been playing his best, and most active, basketball of the season the past few weeks. There's been an energy level about his game that simply did not exist in previous versions, especially on the defensive end. Also, for the past few games (albeit against much inferior competition), we have finally seen strong performances from both Bynum and Pau Gasol, indicating that they have begun to reach a certain level of comfort in sharing the block. No matter how much time Bynum misses, there's no guarantee that he will be able to recapture that energy level and rhythm. Sadly, having seen this movie multiple times before, the storyline generally involves Bynum returning from injury and taking a long, long time to become fully comfortable on the court. This is definitely a different, less severe injury, so one can't say for sure that it will happen again, but we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that the Andrew Bynum which makes it to the playoffs will once again be a shell of the guy who was earning that $12 million a year.
But these reasons all deal with Bynum specifically. The question of how this affects the team overall is different altogether. This injury leaves the Lakers and Phil Jackson in a tight spot. On the one hand, the Lakers happen to employ the best backup big man in the league, so the quality of play won't suffer nearly as badly as if this were to happen to any other team in the league. But, after Lamar Odom, the drop off in talent is roughly akin to Niagra Falls. I love DJ Mbenga (and tolerate Josh Powell), but any time one of those players is on the court, it's bad news for the Lakers. DJ can defend well, but might actually be helping the other team on offense. Powell can stroke the shot sometimes, but not nearly as often as he tries to, and his defense is pretty deplorable. With the Lakers looking at a very difficult stretch of schedule (5 of the next 6 on the road), and with Dallas, Denver and Orlando all breathing down the Lakers necks fighting for potential home court advantage in the playoffs, Phil Jackson has to decide how much to play the two great bigs we have left.
Last season, when Bynum went down, Pau Gasol averaged 40 minutes a game the rest of the way. Considering how much we already believe Pau to be struggling with fatigue this season, that solution isn't very desired, but we may not have much of a choice. The Lakers can't even effectively go small (with Artest playing the 4 and Odom at the 5) because the depth at small forward is already razor thin without the services of Luke Walton. The Lakers have basically been playing a 9 man rotation, but of the 9 (starters + LO, Farmar, Brown, Sasha), 5 of those players are naturally guards. With Bynum's injury, we are down to 3 front court players for 3 front court positions, or else bringing in Powell and Mbenga to take up important minutes in important games.
So what would you do if you were Phil Jackson: Play Gasol more to keep the Lakers in a good groove? Play him the same and just suck it up with Mbenga and Powell? Would the length of Bynum's recovery change what PJ does? I'm looking at all these questions, and there are no clear answers. The only truth is this: No matter what the answers are, none of them are good.