Not again. That's what Andrew Bynum and the Lakers had to be thinking Saturday, when Kobe Bryant's follow-through saw him run into Bynum and accidentally cut him down at the knees. Bynum collapsed to the ground in obvious agony, having apparently suffered a serious right knee injury a little more than a year after a subluxation of his left patella ended his 2007-08 season early.
On Monday, the results of an MRI revealed that Bynum had torn the MCL in his right knee in the collision. The Lakers announced that Bynum will miss 8-12 weeks. Let's take a look at what the injury means for his future and the Lakers' chances of returning to the NBA Finals and winning a championship.
Seen more often in the NFL, MCL injuries are not as serious as those to the ACL because the ligament is not nearly as necessary for stability in the knee. Redundant structures give the knee enough stability for function. But function is specific, so does a giant of a man have more of a need? The answer varies from source to source. While the generally accepted time frame for recovery from a Grade II sprain (an incomplete tear) is between eight and 12 weeks, matching the timetable for Bynum's return, some experts in the field believe that once the knee is stable, the athlete can safely participate.
The complicating factors for Bynum are not just his size and the pressure that puts on even the healthy structures of the knee, but his history of problems with the other knee. Surgery isn't an option; current surgical thought has the MCL "left out" of surgical fixes as long as the knee is stable. Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers played in the Super Bowl on Sunday with a Grade II sprain. Bynum is likely done for the regular season.
The bigger concern might be Bynum's long-term future in the wake of serious knee injuries in consecutive seasons. Like many big men, his body might be breaking down under the size that helps make him such a special talent.
There are a variety of reasons to believe that the Lakers are in fine shape even without Bynum in the lineup for an extended period. The most obvious is the team's cushion in the Western Conference playoff picture. The Lakers lead San Antonio by 5.5 games with 35 left to play--a larger margin than separates the Spurs from the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks.
A glance at the standings may understate how much the Lakers have separated themselves from the rest of the West pack. Point differential shows them to be in an entirely different class. The Lakers have outscored opponents by 8.8 points per game this season. The next-best mark in the Western Conference belongs to the Portland Trail Blazers at +4.0. From this perspective, the West is not nearly as deep as it was a year ago, when six teams had differentials of +4 or better.
Most importantly, there should be little doubt that the Lakers can thrive without Bynum. Not only is that what they did a year ago, making the NBA Finals in Bynum's absence, in truth it's what we saw for much of the first two months of the season as Bynum slowly worked his way back to the level he reached last year pre-injury and figured out how to co-exist with Pau Gasol. It has only been during the month of January that Bynum has reemerged as a dominant force at both ends of the floor.
The plus-minus data tends to back up this notion. The Lakers have been a better defensive team with Bynum on the floor, allowing 3.4 fewer points per 100 possessions. However, their Offensive Rating has taken a hit of 6.5 points per 100 possessions, making Bynum a net negative. Even granting that comparison is largely to a Gasol/Odom frontcourt and does not entirely take into account the extra minutes the Lakers will give to deeper reserves Josh Powell and Vladimir Radmanovic, Bynum hardly appears indispensable to the team.
The wild card in all of this is the Kobe Bryant factor. Bryant has spent much of the season playing on cruise control, his minutes down to 36.4 a night--the lowest since he came off the bench during his second season. With his dazzling 61-point effort Monday at Madison Square Garden, Bryant served notice that he is still more than capable of carrying the Lakers when they need him to step up.
The season-high scoring outing is an interesting contrast to the game the Lakers played a year ago when they learned they would be without Bynum for an extended period. That night, in an overtime win over the Sonics in Seattle, Bryant scored 48 points. Getting there, however, required Bryant to attempt 44 shots (he took just 31 against the Knicks, scoring much more efficiently and making more use of the free-throw line); none of his teammates scored more than 14 points. With no Bynum and Gasol still toiling in Memphis, there was a real sense that Bryant had to do it all. No such feeling exists this year, as reinforced by the fact that Gasol added 31 points to Bryant's 61 on Tuesday.
Now, the math becomes different when the Eastern Conference enters the picture. A major reason the Lakers were so excited about Bynum's return to the lineup this season was the possibility that his physical play in the paint could have made the difference against the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. Certainly, Bynum brings a defensive presence Gasol simply cannot match, and the combination of the two limits easy buckets. The Lakers are at their most balanced with Bynum in the lineup.
Additionally, while it's hard to see anyone in the West catching the Lakers, their chances of keeping up with Boston and Cleveland are significantly worse without Bynum. (Orlando, which had been the fourth team in the hunt for the league's best record, now faces its own costly injury with Jameer Nelson out for at least 3-6 weeks and possibly done for the season after tearing his rotator cuff.) All three teams have nine losses at the moment, with the Celtics relatively healthy and the Cavaliers getting back to full strength with Zydrunas Ilgauskas having returned to the lineup and Delonte West hoping to come back before the All-Star break.
The most difficult aspect of Bynum's potential return for the Lakers figures to be working him back into the rotation. If he was able to come back late in the regular season, it would be easy to get him the minutes he needs. However, Phil Jackson may have little choice but to play a rusty Bynum during the early rounds of the playoffs to make sure he is ready for the later rounds. Even for Jackson, that's an extremely long-sighted view, but it might be necessary to have the Lakers at their strongest by season's end. In that case, Bynum's injury might ultimately be little more than speedbump for the Lakers on their way to their final destination.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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