Ladies and gentlemen of Lakers Nation rejoice, your salvation has arrived. As promised, Andrew Bynum is ready and available to play for the first time this season
for the start of training camp ... for opening night ... by Thanksgiving ... before Christmas. In related developments, the Mad Hatter was recently let go from his position organizing Bynum's calendar.
Bynum's return is nearly the only thing that matters about this game. I don't know that the expectations regarding his return are any higher than usual, but the past few weeks have provided us with ample proof that the Lakers are not quite as able to cope with Bynum's absence as they have been in years past. Therefore, while the expectations regarding Bynum remain unchanged, the importance of those expectations being reached has increased quite a bit, which is kind of a scary thought considering how long it has taken Bynum in the past to begin to meet those expectations, and how fleeting our time with expectation-meeting Bynum has been before another injury takes him away from us.
All of which explains why tonight, all the eyes of Lakers Nation will be on our promising young big man. If not for the (lack of) quality of our opponent, I would not care about the result in the slightest. However, because the Lakers are once again playing a team within one win of the league's lowest total (for the fifth time in six games), it would be difficult to stomach a loss. Even so, priorities one, two and three on the evening are all observing Drew in action, and how it affects the rest of the team.
Keep in mind, very little of this is directly related to Bynum's actual basketball performance. Expect him to be rusty in the extreme. Expect him to have a low success rate on any shot more difficult than a dunk. Expect him to appear awkward, winded, and a step slow. In short, expect him to look exactly like AB has looked in coming back from injury in the past. These things do not matter, not in his first game injury free since last year's regular season. What matters, what we want to see, is how he looks running up and down the court, or when jumping to corral a rebound in traffic. We want to see how well he moves his feet laterally, and we most certainly don't want to see any sort of hitch or limp or other telling sign that Bynum is not, in fact, pain free. Basically, and I'm really, truly sorry for this, we don't want to see Drew look like Greg Oden.
Quickly, regarding tonight's opponent, we played this same team exactly one week ago, and not much has changed. I'd tell you to read our last preview for info on the team, but outside of John Wall, there wasn't a whole lot of Wizards talk in that preview either. They are just that kind of team, the type that you, as readers and viewers, really don't need to be prepared for. The night after losing to the Lakers, they lost to the Sacramento Kings, currently tied with the Clippers for the league low win total at five, by 25 points. Andray Blatche has returned to their starting lineup after missing the game against the Lakers in Los Angeles, and if it means less minutes for Trevor Booker, that may be a positive for the Lakers. Seriously. Now back to the important stuff.
Another factor to look for is how Bynum changes (and hopefully improves dramatically) the Lakers rotations. Derrick Caracter performed admirably under the circumstances, but Pau Gasol's minute count clearly indicates that Caracter is not the 3rd big man on a championship caliber team, as a rookie at least. With Bynum's return, Pau Gasol gets to play his more comfortable position as power forward, which means he'll be facing a steady dose of the smaller players he usually gobbles up, instead of the big guys he only sometimes gobbles up. It also means we should be able to keep Pau's minute count in the 30s, so he should be fresher from game to game. And Bynum's return should also mean the Lakers are never without a significant post presence (even if Bynum is rusty, his size and ability to establish position alone make him a significant presence), which should improve the bench's ability to generate shots dramatically.
Another key to Bynum's return is the affect he will have on the Lakers defensively. In the end, this will be the most important part of having Drew healthy, but tonight, don't hold your breath for instant defensive improvement. It's true that Bynum's sheer size will go a long way towards discouraging the forays towards the basket that other teams have been getting so easily in recent weeks, but even at full strength, Bynum is probably the worst of our three big men in defending the pick and roll, because he is the least mobile. That said, Gasol's lazy/fatigued performance in this area hasn't been great either, so maybe there will be some instant gratification defensively after all. Tying back into the original theme, however, Bynum's actual defensive performance is not nearly as important as his attempt at a performance. I don't care if Bynum gets beat at the rim all night long, I don't even care if he picks up a ton of fouls attempting to block shots. In fact, I'd be encouraged by it, because the single most important factor regarding Andrew Bynum's return will not be his performance, or even his movement. The key to look for, the single aspect I will be waiting on with baited breath, is whether Bynum has enough confidence in his knee to try and mix it up.
That is hurdle one, and it is the only one we should care about seeing crossed tonight.