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BILL PLASCHKE

Lakers, feeling pain of Andrew Bynum's injury, must come up with recovery plan

It's a panicky thought, that the center's knee injury just might have cost them a championship. Emerging players help, but they will need to do more with less.

February 03, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

You're thinking it. The rest of the NBA is thinking it. I bet deep down, some folks who show up for work in purple and gold sweats are even thinking it.

Andrew Bynum's right knee may have just cost the Lakers a championship.

It's a nutty thought, but then so was the notion that, when he injured his knee at this same time last year, Bynum might miss the rest of the season.

He did.

It's a panicky thought, but then so was the theory that without Bynum's inside toughness, the Lakers couldn't survive last year's ultimate battle with the Boston Celtics.

They didn't.

Based on an appreciation for the emergence of Pau Gasol, the spark of Trevor Ariza and the leadership of Kobe Bryant, it is reasonable to expect that the Lakers will somehow survive this injury.

Based on recent history, they will not.

Last season, in his five games before the injury, Bynum averaged 19 points and 13 rebounds with three blocks while shooting 74%.

This season, in his five games before the injury, Bynum averaged 26 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots while shooting 65%.

Last season, he was finally reaching his potential when the injury pulled the chair out from under a Lakers team that, even with the addition of Gasol, was never the same.

This season, he was finally reaching his potential again when, well, doesn't it feel as if they could be headed for the same crash?

"They say we have depth, we know we have depth, we will forge ahead."

This was Mitch Kupchak. Of course that was Mitch Kupchak.

I reached the stoic Lakers general manager on the phone Monday, several hours after the Lakers learned that Bynum would miss eight to 12 weeks after suffering a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee in a collision with Bryant.

Kupchak spoke calmly. He is at his best under pressure. He saved last season after Bynum's injury by trading for Gasol. If anybody can figure this out, it would be him.

But when I asked if he was nauseated when watching Bynum crumple Saturday in Memphis, he admitted as much.

"That would be a fair assessment," he said. "I diagnosed it from my den. Any time you have a collision like that, I could just tell."

Kupchak said his fears were confirmed by the look on Bryant's face.

"He was just sick," he said. "The whole team was down. And it lingered."

The Lakers, trailing by half a dozen points at halftime, outscored the Grizzlies, 60-37, in the second half for an easy win, which Kupchak saw as a metaphor for the coming months.

"We played through it, we moved ahead, that's what we've always done," Kupchak said.

But at what pace?

They can win the depleted Western Conference without Bynum. But they will probably not finish with the league's best record without him.

Lacking either home-court advantage or frontcourt advantage, they then would probably not be able to withstand an improved Cleveland team or a tough Boston team in the Finals.

"We are all a year older, the young guys have been here before, we're a different team than last year, even without Andrew," Kupchak countered.

Maybe. But experience doesn't alter shots that Bynum altered. And depth doesn't change game plans the way Bynum changes them.

Kupchak can always make a trade like last year -- Feb. 19 is the deadline -- and wouldn't Sacramento's Brad Miller be a nice addition? But he said right now he's holding tight.

"About a trade, our tendency is to say no," he said. "To me, the resolution is simple -- Andrew has a good chance to return before the end of the year, so we wait."

But if Bynum does return, how long will it take him to trust that injured right knee? It took him nearly a year to figure out how to play on a surgically repaired left knee.

Even though this injury does not require surgery, he's going to figure it out in a couple of weeks before the playoffs? In the month before the Finals?

"This being the second time for an injury, he knows what to expect," Kupchak said. "A lot of times, getting over that second injury is easier. And Andrew has commented that this didn't feel anywhere near as bad as the first injury."

Kupchak is optimistic. Kupchak is sick to his stomach. That sort of describes everyone around the Lakers this week, nobody knowing what to think, leading to the idea that there are only a couple of ways they can survive this:

1. Bynum pulls a Jordan Farmar and shows up a couple of weeks early.

2. Lamar Odom shows up now.

We don't know if Bynum possesses the recovery powers of Farmar, who recently returned from knee surgery one full month before he was expected.

But we know Odom possesses something special that, if he can finally tap into it during his contract drive, could save the season.

In the Finals' Game 6 embarrassment last season in Boston, Odom had more turnovers -- three -- than baskets and offensive rebounds combined. Throughout the series, he seemed reluctant to match the Celtics' physical energy inside.

If the Lakers want to return to that point this year, Odom doesn't have a choice. His nice life coming off the bench is over. He's back in the middle of the lane, in the center of the pressure, in the eye of the storm, and the Lakers' season may depend on how well he copes.

Until we know about any of this, Lakers fans can only imitate the injured on-court reaction of the hero whose loss they are now mourning.

You know, scream.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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