It didn't take long for the Lakers' three-peat convoy to hit its first land mine. On Sept. 20, before training camp even began, news came that center Andrew Bynum, he of the perennially cursed knees, wouldn't play in any preseason games and hadn't even been cleared to take part in practice. The culprit was the surgery he underwent on July 28 to repair the achy right knee he lugged through the playoffs last season. Somewhat surprisingly, David Stern has elected not to postpone opening night while Drew completes his rehab. Where's that pro-Laker conspiracy when you need it?
At the team's media day, Bynum said that he didn't expect to be back in action until the end of November. A day later, Phil Jackson offered a different assessment, telling reporters that Drew might miss only the first two or three weeks of the regular season. As usual, when it comes to Laker injuries, the best advice I can give is to trust no one.
Consider these recent examples.
- In January 2008, when Bynum suffered the first of his knee injuries, we were told that he'd be out eight weeks. He missed the rest of the regular season and all of the playoffs.
- In October 2009, after Pau Gasol strained his right hamstring in a preseason game, he was optimistically labeled "day to day." In mid-November, he still hadn't appeared on the court, and Phil warned everyone that Pau could be out until Christmas. Twenty-four hours later, Phil said he was joking about all that. Finally Pau returned on Nov. 19, having missed six preseason and 11 regular season games.
- On Feb. 16 of this year, after Kobe Bryant had sat out 11 days to rehab an injured ankle, we were told he'd play that very night against Golden State. He didn't actually return until Feb. 23.
When it comes to discussing injuries, the Lakers -- how do I put this delicately? -- have only a casual commitment to accuracy. It's not that they lie, exactly. It's that they don't care whether you and I know the truth. When they're uncertain about a player's return date, they might say as much in code by calling the player "day to day." Or, Phil might throw out an estimate that lacks any medical basis and that he maybe doesn't even believe himself. In other words, any estimate from Lakerdom of Bynum's return date should be regarded as conjecture. I'll believe he's back when I see him jumping center in an actual game.
Who, if anyone, screwed up here?
The NBA Finals ended on June 17. Students of the Roman calendar will note that June 17 falls more than a full month prior to July 28, when Bynum had his surgery. Why the delay? And why is it taking him so damn long to start balling again?
Drew says he wasn't ready to undergo surgery immediately after such a long season. He wanted to attend the World Cup in South Africa, so initially he targeted July 18 as the date for the operation. Phil and General Manager Mitch Kupchak both signed off on this plan.
You know who didn't sign off on the plan? Drew's surgeon, Dr. David Altchek, who didn't have an available slot on his operating table until July 28. Thus, a procedure that was first delayed by choice was further delayed by necessity.
Compounding the problem is what Dr. Altchek saw when he opened up the knee in question. The cartilage he intended to repair had worsened since he last looked at it, so rather than simply trim away a piece of it, as planned, he decided to sew it up completely. Although this will improve the long-term stability of Bynum's knee, it requires a longer rehab process than everyone first expected.
Lakers observers are divided between those who fault Drew for delaying the surgery and those who think it was a reasonable decision undermined by a dose of poor luck. I'm in the former camp. There was some bad luck in this case -- Drew couldn't have foreseen that his surgeon would call an audible and force him into a protracted rehab period -- but by postponing the surgery right off the bat, Drew and the organization gave themselves no margin for error.
Injuries, and their attendant recovery times, are unpredictable. With even minor injuries, it can be difficult to project how long a player will need to get back on the court. Major injuries -- such as, say, knees that require surgery -- make predicting return times especially fraught. The Lakers should have internalized this lesson by now. (See the bullet-pointed examples above.) That they couldn't have predicted the exact cause of the delay in this case doesn't mean they couldn't have imagined something going wrong.
The maxim "hope for the best, plan for the worst" was not observed. Bynum, and those who approved his timetable, both hoped and planned for the best-case scenario. Rarely does that work out well.
Mark Medina, who provides excellent coverage of the Lakers at the Los Angeles Times, is among Bynum's defenders. He argues that putting off the surgery was a valid move because of Bynum's need to recharge his batteries after the Finals ended.
The bottom line is that players deserve a vacation after a long season. In Bynum's case, he needed to mentally recharge from all the built up fatigue and pain he accumulated during the playoffs. Having surgery immediately after the season would only fuel his exhaustion even more because the operation itself requires energy and the rehab process would only exacerbate matters.
I concede that everyone deserves a vacation now and then. But honestly, how much time does Andrew Bynum need to mentally recharge? He's not an air-traffic controller. It's not like he's been hard at work in a lab trying to cure AIDS. The guy plays basketball for a living. He gets paid $14 million to play, at most, about 100 games a year. By pretty much any objective measure, he has the best job in the world.
I don't begrudge him his cash monies, and I'm not saying he should've driven straight from Staples Center after the confetti fell to Dr. Altchek's office, but let's remember what we're talking about here. The "work" for which he gets paid an eight-figure salary consists of playing basketball, and then getting ready to play more basketball. Asking him to take only a couple weeks off before having surgery (after which he gets to chill for a couple more weeks on tasty prescription painkillers) doesn't seem excessively cruel.
That he failed to do so doesn't make him a bad human being or a bad teammate. It just means that he and the organization exercised poor judgment. It happens. The squall will pass at some point, but it would pass more quickly if Drew, when asked if he would do it all over again, would stop saying things like this:
I don't know if I'm privileged enough to have the opportunity in four years to attend a World Cup. To me, I had a special moment. I had a good time and now I'm back.
I'm pretty sure Drew will have the wherewithal to attend just about every World Cup that takes place from now and until he dies. What he might not be privileged enough to experience again is a chance at a third consecutive NBA title.
How Much Does This Matter?
The good news is, the Lakers have ample experience playing without Andrew Bynum. Gasol will move to center, and Lamar Odom will start at power forward. This isn't the first time they've had to do this, and it won't be the last.
Let's say Drew is out until the end of November. He'll have missed 18 games, or almost a quarter of the season. That's not trivial. Luckily, the early slate of opponents isn't taxing. Eleven of those 18 games are against teams that didn't make the playoffs last year, and there's only one back-to-back. Bynum is always better than no Bynum, but if you have to be without him, you'd rather it be early than late.
It's possible -- likely, even -- that by the middle of December, Drew will be back in the rotation, the Lakers' record will be fine, and this will all be fading from memory. Two things could change that prognosis. One is a hiccup in Drew's rehab. If he misses even more time than he's now projecting -- and again, there's precedent -- his absence could start to affect the Lakers' won-loss record as face some sturdier opponents. Just as important, he and the team need to make sure that he doesn't rush himself back. Battling through injury in the NBA Finals is one thing. Hurrying back in November before you're ready, just to shut everyone up, is entirely another and a fantastic way to risk a recurrence.
The other danger is that the Lakers suffer another injury while Drew's out, stressing their front-court depth even further. The team can get by without either Drew or Pau, but having both of them out would be a bad situation. There's a reason Theo Ratliff could be had for the veteran's minimum.
How much Drew's absence will matter can't be answered yet. There are too many unknowns. We don't know how long he'll be out, and therefore we can't guess how many wins this will cost the Lakers.
For what it's worth, I disagree with Medina's statement that "all that matters is how healthy the two [Bynum and Kobe] are at the end of the season." Home-court advantage in the playoffs is important. Sometimes it's critical, as when the Lakers got to play Game Seven against the Celtics at Staples, and sometimes it's merely useful. But having it is better than not, which means regular-season games matter. And games in October and November count every bit as much as those in March and April. If next June, there's another Game Seven of the NBA Finals, but this time it's at American Airlines Arena in Miami, we might well look back on this summer and wish that Andrew Bynum hadn't been so intent on attending the World Cup.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.