Friday afternoon, Phil Jackson said he thought Andrew Bynum might miss a few games to start the season. Two, three, maybe four.
Guess he should have run that line by Bynum himself, because Saturday the fifth-year center revealed he expected to spend significantly more time in street clothes. "I see [returning] more towards the end of November," he said. Bynum remains about four weeks away from significant activity on the floor, and then he has to work his way back into playing shape and onto the court. While Bynum will never be confused with Nostradamus when it comes to predicting when he'll return from injury -- he tends to be overly optimistic -- for the sake of argument, let's say he's right and returns Nov. 30 vs. Memphis. It would be L.A.'s 18th game of the season.
A week or so in either direction obviously changes the number, but either way we're talking about a significant chunk of the year. So what does it mean for the Lakers?
1. In the immortal words of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, we have all been here before. The Lakers are obviously a better team with Bynum than without but have clearly demonstrated over the last few seasons an ability to win with him on the sidelines. It is, unfortunately, very well-worn territory. They still have the depth to compensate, arguably more so than last year, when Jackson was fairly reluctant to use D.J. Mbenga when both Bynum and Pau Gasol missed time. Theo Ratliff represents an upgrade, and could see more minutes. Derrick Caracter doesn’t have the experience of Josh Powell, but if pressed into action I suspect the difference in performance between the two will be negligible. Caracter is a more skilled offensive player, Powell more seasoned defensively.
Still, losing Bynum means more time at center for Gasol, which isn’t ideal.
2. Chasing fitness. Bynum’s biggest issue isn’t the games he’ll miss -- the team will still pile up wins -- but his conditioning when he returns. Were he dealing with a broken wrist, Bynum could stay in better shape with cardio and lower body work. Instead, surgery wiped out both the opportunity to build his body in the offseason, and now he won’t be able to take advantage of training camp, either. It’s very difficult, especially for a big, to find elite level fitness once the season has already started.
Last year, Gasol hurt his hamstring in training camp and spent the rest of the year trying to catch up. No surprise he lost time with another muscle strain later in the year. I’m no doctor, but it seems reasonable to suspect a guy who loses the opportunity to properly prepare for the rigors of an NBA season because of injury has a higher chance of hurting himself again once that season begins.
Particularly when that person is Bynum.
3. On the one hand… Bynum is catching a lot of flak from fans and media alike for attending the World Cup this summer, scheduling his surgery for July 18 rather than a date closer to the beginning of the month (given when the Lakers put a bow on last season, I don’t think it’s realistic to believe he could have undergone the procedure earlier than that.) Combined with the delay created when scheduling problems with Bynum’s doctor pushed the big day to July 28, he gave away perhaps as much as a month of potential healing time.
The Lakers, though, were aware of his timeline, and approved. Moreover, Jackson said Friday he encouraged Bynum to enjoy the experience of the World Cup, and emphasized the importance of players taking time in the offseason to mentally recharge. He’s not the only guy who took a little time to globe-trot before getting surgery. Kobe Bryant did the same, as did plenty of players around the league.
4. On the other hand… We asked Bynum Saturday afternoon at media day if, knowing what he knows now about the extended recovery time, he’d do anything differently. "Nope," he replied. "I had to have the surgery when I was ready for it. I was coming off the emotional high of going out and winning your second championship. I just kind of needed a little me time. Me and the family. I just took it from there. I went to go see the World Cup, it was a great time for me, one of the best of my life. I got to stay on safari. And then when I got back home, I took care of business."
In reality, based on Bynum's intended date of surgery, we’re talking about two to three weeks, a significant amount, but not season-altering. But when we asked him if he’s still aiming for the All-Star team, again he was pretty clear. "It's definitely still a goal of mine,” he said. “For me, this year, I just want to play the best that I can, make the All-Star team, and obviously get the threepeat."
So which does he value more? Bynum still would have scheduled the operation for July 18 and made his trip to Africa, even with the understanding he could miss a month of the season. Only superstars tend to have the flexibility to miss so much time and still make the All-Star roster. It may be the travel and personal time is more important than the reward of All-Star status, which wouldn’t necessarily mean his priorities are out of order. (All-Star honors have nothing to do with winning a title.). He also talked about wanting to play in all 82 games, but is obviously willing to give some of those games away.
Not acceptable, certainly not for the nearly $14 million he’ll earn this year. To go back to the earlier comparison, there’s no way Kobe would knowingly give away a chunk of his season. He elected not to have finger surgery for that very reason. I realize not every player is Kobe, but for Bynum to say he wouldn’t have changed his timeline to preserve as many regular-season games as possible shows he still has a lot of growing up to do.
I’m willing to defend Bynum’s initial timetable, without reservation, but not his priorities given the benefit of hindsight. He's obligated to try and make himself available for as many games as possible. I suspect mine is an opinion shared by a lot of fans.
Should he slack off in his rehab or work once he's playing again, it could hurt him with teammates, too.