As comeback announcements go, it wasn't as theatrical or world-rocking as Michael Jordan's two-word press release ("I'm back") in 1995. But when Andrew Bynum announced yesterday, via the Twitter feed of Los Angeles Times reporter Mike Bresnahan, that he's "definitely playing" Tuesday night against the Washington Wizards, Laker fans everywhere did a little MJ fist pump.
The Lakers' young center hasn't seen any game action since the NBA Finals last June (unless you count the World Cup matches he attended over the summer), and Lakerdom is depending on his long-anticipated return from post-surgical convalescence to inject new verve into a season that after a roaring start has been nervously drifting sideways.
When the Lakers began the year with eight straight victories, most of them blowouts, the sense was that Drew needn't hurry back. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were manning the front line superbly, and the reconstituted Laker bench was more than compensating for Drew's absence. Our complacency took its first direct hit on Nov. 11. That night, the Denver Nuggets tagged the Lakers with their first loss of the season by carving up the champs' interior defense.
A couple weeks later, a previously unthinkable four-game losing streak unfolded, during which Gasol looked broken down from the weight of playing nearly 40 minutes a night at the center position. Narrow wins since then over league doormats Washington, the Clippers and New Jersey -- in which the Lakers' defensive rebounding was deeply substandard, as it's been all year -- have only made Bynum's return all the more urgent.
Will Drew's addition to the lineup restore the purple and gold to championship form? His conditioning and instincts will need a little time before they're game-sharp, but in the medium and long runs, there's every reason to believe that Bynum will be a difference-maker. Here's how.
1. He'll shore up the defense around the rim.
The Lakers' team D has declined from last season. In 2009-10 they were sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Through 24 games this year they're ranked only 10th, and even that understates the drop-off. Only eight of their 24 opponents rank in the top half of the NBA in offensive efficiency, so in schedule-adjusted terms the Lakers' defense has been at best about league-average.
Bynum will help. One of the main problems this year has been that perimeter defenders have had to collapse into the key to help out on penetrators and post threats, leaving opposing shooters open around the arc. Drew provides a massive presence inside that will allow Laker guards and wings to stay home on the perimeter. He's also the team's best shot-blocker and isn't adverse to administering a hard foul now and again. With Bynum patrolling the paint, it'll become a much less hospitable destination for opposing scorers.
2. He'll provide badly needed defensive rebounding.
Last year the Lake Show ranked ninth in defensive rebounding rate, and in the playoffs their iron grip on the boards was key to their championship run. This year their defensive glasswork has been an embarrassment. Opponents are averaging almost 14 second-chance points a game and have recovered almost 30% of their own misses, dropping the Lakers to 25th in the league in defensive rebounding. Drew should put an end to this nonsense. His size, strength and dependable hands have made him a quality rebounder since he entered the league. Per Basketball Value, the Lakers' DRR last season was nearly three points better with him on the court. Expect him to have a similar effect going forward.
3. He'll reduce the possibility that Pau keels over dead from exhaustion.
Gasol is averaging a career-high 39.3 minutes a night. He's clocked more than 40 minutes in seven of the Lakers' last nine games. No NBA player should really play this much, least of all one as willowy as Pau. And it's not just the minutes: with Drew on the shelf Pau has had to slide from power forward over to center. He can survive there for limited stretches, but his chassis isn't designed to handle it over the long haul. Drew is much better equipped to grapple with 260-pound ogres. Not only will his return allow Phil Jackson to dial back Pau's playing time. It'll also help the Lakers blow out a few more squads and avoid down-to-the-wire contests against lottery teams, in which case all the starters will get more rest.
4. He'll create exploitable mismatches along the front line.
What makes Gasol a championship-caliber player is that he has the skills of an elite power forward with the height of a center. When he and Bynum are on the court together, the opponent's center must attend to Drew. That means Pau can go to work against an opposing four, who rarely has the size to handle him. When Drew's off the court and Pau's playing center, this competitive advantage is neutralized.
Take, for instance, last Friday's loss to the Chicago Bulls. Carlos Boozer, the Bulls' starting four, is a guy Pau typically dominates because he can simply play over the top of Boozer's head. But because he was forced to the five position, Pau instead had to operate against Joakim Noah, who has the height and wingspan to defend Pau pretty effectively. Gasol didn't have a bad game, but he wasn't the force of nature he usually is against a Carlos Boozer squad. Bynum's return to the rotation will restore those mismatches that make Pau such a dangerous asset.
5. He'll improve the bench either by joining it or by displacing Odom from the starting lineup.
It's not yet clear whether Drew will start. Phil Jackson is leaving it up to him for the time being. But whether he runs with the second unit or the first -- and we'll no doubt see him deployed in a variety of lineups -- the bench will benefit from his presence. If he's used as a reserve, he'll likely enter games toward the end of the first quarter, in which case the perimeter skills of Steve Blake, Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes will be complemented by a fourth "Killer B," one who takes up enormous space and can score in the post. And if Drew elects to start, that pushes Odom to the bench and gives the reserves a dynamic, playmaking big man who can keep up in transition. Either way, the Lakers' depth will get, both literally and figuratively, a sizable boost.