Baring any adverse set-backs (think Boston’s KG), or another (god forbid) injury against Memphis, the Lakers automatically jump from a championship contender to the odds-on-favorite to win it all. I envision Phil and the coaching staff fiddling with the line-up throughout the playoffs. I can see Luke Walton starting in certain instances so that Trevor can help steady the bench. I also see Phil going with the Odom-Gasol-Bynum triumvirate just to intimidate teams already weak in the middle, like Utah and Denver. But Odom is the key to this team’s success. His ability to drastically alter the opposing teams defensive assignments fall heavily in favor of the Lakers. With so many weapons on the court, opponents have no choice but to leave Odom open, doubling up on Kobe or Pau, or now, Bynum in the paint. Odom remains our 4th option on offense. What other team has that type of talent as a 4th option? And Lamar running with the Bench Mob provides them with a “starter” playing against role players. But as he has shown in the past, Odom can just as easily disappear in a heartbeat, shying away from the spotlight and mysteriously pulling within his shell.
Phil Jackson is a master at managing the emotional pulse of his teams. With a wide collection of talent, Phil needs to orchestrate a delicate balance in order for the Lakers to succeed in the playoffs. Jordan Farmer is this team’s version of Craig Hodges. Hodges, currently one of Phil’s Special Assistant Coaches, was one of the most prolific, three-point threats for Phil’s championship Bulls, and he often came under the consternation of an irate Jackson. But the thick-skinned Hodges, much like Farmer, persevered and became stronger and a better player from this. We can only hope that Farmer can follow a similar route. His physical skills make him a dangerous threat, but his court vision and decision making needs improvement. Sasha Vujacic,compared to Farmer, deflates when he plays poorly. And Phil understands this. He never comes down as hard on Vujacic, even when he is shooting the team out of well established double digit leads. But Phil realizes the importance that a player like Sasha brings to the court. His pesky (okay, pain-in-the-ass) defense harasses opponents into stupid, retaliatory fouls and his uncanny ability to drain the three can effectively bring an opponent to its knees. Toss in Odom and Ariza with their equally shaky frame of minds and you begin to see how easily this whole thing can fall apart. Phil has a difficult balancing act to manage, but if anyone is capable of pulling this off, he is definitely the one.
There are several key factors which may preclude any decision on who ultimately starts, and those all lie with Andrew and how he responds to actual game action. I’m personally curbing down my expectations, because as we all witnessed at the start of the season, even an entire summer of rehabilitation didn’t exactly have Bynum racing out of the starting blocks. It took a good 2-3 months before he was back as the dominating center that we had fallen head over heels for from the previous season. Fans have said that if he can play at 50% efficiency, we’ll be a lock to win the whole shebang. That’s scary–50% means he’s barely walking, let alone defending the paint against the likes of Duncan, Nene, Oden, Okur and Yao Ming in the West. We need more than a walking stiff. If DJ Mbenga is putting the hurt on Andrew in scrimmages, we need a healthy and mobile Andrew Bynum in the Finals who is capable of exploding off the floor for rebounds, blocked shots and easy buckets.Okay, so I imagine you’ve all heard the good news. Andrew Bynum is returning to the Los Angeles Lakers after being out of action since January 31st. His latest knee injury (torn MCL in his right knee) has sufficiently healed and Bynum has been pain-free since practicing with the team at full speed. According to Phil Jackson, he intends to reinsert Bynum back into the starting line-up to keep his knee warm, rather than allow him to cool down by coming off the bench. That means the most likely scenario will be for Lamar Odom to return back to the bench, which is not entirely a bad thing based on the Bench Mob’s recent performances. But it may be a serious, mental blow to Odom’s frail and vulnerable psyche. Can he effectively return to the bench after performing so well as a starter when Bynum went down? Should Trevor Ariza instead move to the bench to keep Lamar on the court?
Luckily for the Lakers, we have a highly talented team that is capable of sustaining its efficiency throughout the playoffs even without Bynum. I hope that Andrew can use this time to hone his skills and become the force in the middle in time for the finale. He can ride on the coattails of Kobe-Pau-Lamar in the first and second rounds. But our expectations go up in the Western Conference Finals and against the beasts in the East, whoever ends up surviving that skirmish. And then finally, I can envision gold and purple streamers trailing down from the rafters in celebration of another Lakers championship.