Andrew Bynum is back.
That is the story today, and until basketball is played and a result has been determined, it is the only story there is. It's a story us Laker fans are familiar with. Our hopes are once again pinned to the young giant's return to the court, and in his potential as an offensive force and a defensive juggernaut. We've put our hopes and dreams in Bynum's return a few times now, but this year comes with a serious twist. This year, Bynum coming back means Bynum is BACK. This time, he returns not from a 3 month injury, but from a 4 game suspension.
No waiting for weeks until Bynum feels comfortable that his knees and legs aren't going to betray him. No waiting months for Bynum's offensive touch to rediscover itself. No waiting indefinitely for the team to integrate Bynum in their plans having not done so because he wasn't available earlier. Drew is healthy, and with Lamar Odom traded away, there is no question about his role within the team. He is the Lakers center, and he will play as many minutes as he can handle for the first time in his career. He will play those minutes right away, and there is expected to be no delay incorporating him into the team.Good thing too, because the Lakers have two straight games against a tough opponent in a back-to-back set with the Denver Nuggets. Denver has rebuilt their team after the departure of Carmelo Anthony into a constant onslaught of above average talent. They don't have a single player that gets the boots shaking with fear, but they sport five capable players at just about all times. They are 2-1 on the season, with a loss at Portland the lone dark spot on their season so far. Their success has been on the back of Ty Lawson, who is leading the team in scoring with 22 points a game on an insane 62% shooting. Al Harrington has also been killing it for the Nuggets, with 15 points a game on 55% shooting. Neither player will be able to keep that production up all season, but you have to worry especially about Ty Lawson, who is ... you know ... an ultra quick point guard. The Lakers tend to ... you know ... struggle with ultra quick point guards.
More than anything with Denver, one has to imagine that the players are all ready simply to have a season not filled with the kind of drama brought on by last year's Melo saga. The players who remain pre-Melo no longer have to worry about the distraction of knowing your star's heart lies elsewhere, and the players who were brought in no longer have a change of location hanging over their heads. Denver did just fine without Melo last season, and with more time to prepare and less reasons for discontent, one has to imagine that George Karl will have this team playing hard throughout the season, probably towards the middle of the Western Conference playoff race. They might have been even better if half their team wasn't playing in China.
Back to the Lakers, the four game period in which Bynum was absent provided a few answers about how this Lakers team will operate this season, and those answers were, for the most part, very encouraging. Through four games, Kobe Bryant is posting career highs in assists and PER, lending a bit of early credence to the idea that the Triangle offense prevented Kobe from shining in a statistical fashion all these years. Even as I took him to task for the way he closed out the Chicago Bulls game, there is no doubt that Kobe has looked strong, both in his actual play, and the way the team is getting him the ball in positions that will help him to make plays for the team. The bench play has been surprisingly effective, and no one on the team, even Kobe, has played better relative to expectations than Metta World Peace. MWP has been a revelation off the bench, with 12 points a game and 50% shooting. Just four games in, I have no problem at all with the concept of letting Metta be the offensive focal point of the 2nd unit, though the contradiction of that versus previous opinions of him might just make my brain explode. He's so big that he can bully his opponent in the post and actually force teams to double team him, and whenever that happens, he has always made the right play and distributed the basketball. His dribble drives will get gobbled up by decent weakside defenders, but against the right kind of team, Artest is proving himself to be downright unstoppable. Pau Gasol struggled a bit in Bynum's absence, but he's come on strong the last couple of games, and his numbers are hardly poor. Best of all, neither he nor Kobe have been worked to the nub. Bryant has played 34 minutes a game, and Gasol just 35.
Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Lakers success in Bynum's absence has been the strong defensive play. You look at the Lakers overall and see a team that has very few defensive tools to work with. Kobe remains a capable defender (and has looked much more active and engaged on that end so far this season). MWP is a shell of his former self, but even that shell has many tricks and unlimited strength up his sleeve. Devin Ebanks is a defense-first guy too. But outside that, you wouldn't call any of the Lakers strong defensive players, with many of the remaining guys (Derek Fisher, Jason Kapono, Troy Murphy) being outright liabilities. And yet, defensively, save for the one Kings contest that appears to have been a blip, the Lakers have been very, very good. The big men have played active, hedging, defense, which allowed the Lakers to do a pretty good job containing Derrick Rose. The rotations team-wide have been tight. All in all, Mike Brown certainly appears to be deserving of his reputation as a strong defensive coach.
And now he gets a shiny new toy, easily the best and biggest defensive tool in the arsenal. Bynum can also help on defense, as we get to see just how effectively the team can implement the Twin Towers offense employed by the Spurs when Tim Duncan and David Robinson shared the same air space. It's an exciting time to see what this team can really do, having come out of the fire of a Bynum-less start smelling relatively fresh. This team has potential, and we shouldn't have to wait long to see if they can fulfill it.