- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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The official report on Andrew Bynum's right knee -- torn MCL, out 8-12 weeks -- came on Monday. But the news was written on Kobe Bryant's face seconds after he fell backward into Bynum during Saturday night's win in Memphis and Bynum collapsed, clutching his knee.
"[Kobe] looked as if he'd seen a ghost," said a team source.
The specter Bryant saw flash before him was last season all over again. A very good season, to be sure, but one that fell short of Bryant's ambition -- and, for the first time, left him sucking wind at the end.
Last season, the Lakers lost Bynum to a left knee injury and, despite his absence, marched all the way to the Finals. The journey took a toll, though, particularly on Bryant, who was unable to summon the necessary energy to overcome a Boston defense that threw three and sometimes four defenders at him.
Bryant knows that if he wants to reach the Finals again and not suffer another fruitless visit, he needs help.
If Bryant is disturbed about having to relive all that, it's because he's a year older and knows there is no one on his roster readily capable of filling Bynum's shoes. Coach Phil Jackson is going back to last year's formula -- Lamar Odom at power forward, Pau Gasol at center -- which should be good enough to win the West, but gives the Lakers no discernible advantage over Orlando, Cleveland or Boston, one of which the Lakers are almost certain to meet if they get that far.
Nor is there anyone available that GM Mitch Kupchak can get of Bynum's ilk between now and the Feb. 19 trade deadline. Jermaine O'Neal? He might be a better fit in Miami than Shawn Marion, but as a defensive presence and finisher at the rim he's not worth whatever the Lakers would have to give up to get him.
Also factor in the Lakers' triangle offense, a system that generally takes a player a full season to work in effectively.
Former Laker Ronny Turiaf, who seems to be an afterthought in Golden State, would be more serviceable, but even if the Warriors were interested in moving him, would he be worth Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic or Vlad Radmanovic, all of whose contracts match?
Jackson, a firm believer in continuity and familiarity, would much rather rely on the players he has than a wild-card new addition. The Lakers might be better served starting Chris Mihm and keeping the lethal bench brigade led by Odom intact, rather than looking for a quick fix from an external source.
The hard reality is that the Lakers will have to go forward hoping, as Bryant is, that last year's experience will make the difference this year. Truth is, the Lakers know as well as anyone that this team is not markedly tougher mentally than last season's squad. They seemed to be hoping that with Bynum, their versatility and depth could overwhelm whoever they faced, keeping the nail-biting or come-from-behind finishes to a minimum. Losing Bynum erases a significant part of that versatility/depth margin.
It's not as if they can't win close games; any team with Bryant can. But as the Celtics proved, it's now possible to close him down and force another Laker to take that big shot. Bryant had figured out how to use Bynum flashing to the rim to punish teams for throwing their bigs at him, thereby keeping them honest. Now the Lakers are back to last year's model, where Bryant penetrates and kicks for Derek Fisher or Vujacic or Trevor Ariza to decide the game.
At least give the Lakers credit for this: They are not expecting Bynum back for the rest of the regular season, even though Bynum and his recovery timetable suggest otherwise. That's a change from last year, when the Lakers didn't concede until April that he wasn't coming back, despite sources telling me from the start -- and me telling you -- that it was a season-threatening injury.
The idea that Bynum could be ready in time to be a factor in the Finals is actually more realistic this time. Granted, while he was healthy for training camp, it had taken him the first 2½ months of the season to get fully fit and functioning. Not counting on his return, however, means that if he does come back in any sort of form, he provides a mental lift, rather than forecasting a comeback and then having to reluctantly cancel it.
The biggest pill to swallow is that the Lakers' shot at the league's best record, and thereby home-court advantage over whoever they might face in the Finals, is in peril. They're currently neck-and-neck-and-neck-and-neck with the three Eastern powers and, because of the way they were coming together, were a reasonable bet to come out on top despite a tough second-half schedule.
Now, Bryant and Jackson have a tough decision to make: go all out for the best record, which means Bryant playing longer minutes and expending more energy, or simply cruising home on their established cushion in the West and truly trusting their role players have grown enough that there won't be as much of a disparity between their home and road performances as there was in last season's playoffs.
"You're definitely going to try to get that top seed," says backup point guard Jordan Farmar, who had one assist in three games in Boston and seven in three games at the Staples Center last June. "What are you talking about, saving a few minutes a night? I think the guys in this room would rather lock up the 1-seed. After seeing how the playoffs went for us last year, I think you've got to go for it. But, hey, that's just me.''
No, it's not just him. The Lakers know what they need. They also know it's going to be a lot harder to get it without Bynum -- but that is exactly how they're going to have to do it.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.
Last season showed the Lakers how to survive without center Andrew Bynum, writes Ric Bucher.