Wednesday , Jan , 16 , 2008 C.Y. Ellis

Soft Revolution

Soft Revolution

"I’m sweating about the news on Bynum this afternoon!"

I assume the exclamation point emphasizes emphasis more than it does worry. Either way the phrase lays down with some impact, shit is weighty when you hear it like that.

I appreciate Ryne Nelson trying to warn me. I appreciate ESPN trying to enlighten me. I even appreciate short sighted fans and media who are trying to spread hype. It’s all expected.

The Los Angeles Lakers are currently sitting at 26-11, good for first in the Pacific, a half game better than the Phoenix Suns (read: Nash).  They’ve racked seven W’s in the last seven contests, enlightening the world and making damn certain we all know who is the hottest team in the Association.

It’s called a subluxation. Wikipedia describes it as, an incomplete or partial dislocation of a joint or organ. That’s what happened to Andrew Bynum’s kneecap. And that is what will keep the gargantuan center for the Lakers off hardwood for eight weeks.

Andrew Bynum, or lack thereof.  It hit me on Friday. Impact.

I’m sitting there watching LA’s finest take on the Milwaukee Bucks and I have what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity – Andrew Bynum is a grown ass man.

You watch him differently after you soak in that realization. You examine, reevaluate. No longer are you checking to see if he has potential, no longer do you measure him as a ‘maybe one day’. Now you’re checking to see if this is a legit dominant big man we’re witnessing.

His moves aren’t as awkward anymore. Gone are the days of his rookie season when he looked like he was in his backyard trying to practice post moves. He isn’t imitating moves anymore, he’s making them his own. He looks natural in the post.

Watch him catch the ball underneath. In traffic, with two or more defenders pushing, shoving, and swiping relentlessly, he holds his pivot foot with remarkable traction, swings his massive body into place and uses his incredible length to finish, often with devastating force.

Watch Kobe toss him a lob pass towards the rim. I won’t even describe it. I’ll just say this: it looks familiar.

The numbers might not jump out at you (13 and 10 with a couple of blocks per), but they should. He gets his work done in under 29 minutes a game, and shoots around 63 percent from the floor. Phil Jackson has no doubt been trying to bring him along slowly, not put
too much on him early. But let’s face it, this man (yes, man, not kid) is not only dominant, he’s efficient.

But of course, as of a couple days ago, all of this became a mute point. Subluxation. Eight weeks. Now what the Lakers were, and what they were becoming, gets derailed.

The Lakers had a dominant big man. Catch the past tense. What do they have now? Kwame Brown. Myself and the rest of the intelligent basketball world can say with no lack of satisfaction that we’ve always been right about Kwame – he still sucks.

One can only hope that Ronny Turiaf sees more floor time with Bynum out, but even then there is a significant drop off. The Lakers finally found the piece in the middle they’ve been missing since the departure of Shaq, and now they’ve lost it.

The good news is Bynum will be back. They expect a full recovery, and while eight weeks is a significant chunk of time in an NBA season, it is only a bump in the road. The bad news, this isn’t the Lakers biggest problem.

Kobe Bryant vs. Kobe Bryant
I’ve always said there were two Kobes. The first is the one we’re all familiar with. The 35 points per game Kobe; the 62 in three quarters, outscoring a whole team by himself Kobe; the 81 (!) Kobe. This one shoots first, shoots second, and when it doubt believes he can shoot his team out of anything. This version of Kobe hasn’t won so much as a ribbon without Shaq, and mark my words, he never will.

The second Kobe, however, is one we’re all a little less familiar with, he doesn’t make appearances quite as often, but he’s starting to make himself a more regular part of the Lakers. This Kobe plays better defense, he rebounds better, he gets his teammates involved early and often, he makes his teammates better, and when he shows up he is inarguably and unequivocally the best basketball playing human being on planet earth.

The state of the Lakers, and the ultimate fate of the Lakers, depends on which one of these Kobes show up when it matters the most. With Bynum now injured, the assumption is naturally, and rightfully, that we’ll be seeing more of Kobe #1. The Lakers defeated the Sonics on Monday in a close game, and Kobe scored a season-high 48. Fair enough, but if it takes Kobe scoring 48 to beat the lowly Sonics, it’s clear why Kobe #1 won’t get it done in the long run.

And in truth, whether Bynum was injured or not, Kobe #1 would end up making his share of appearances, after a couple of consecutive losses, down the stretch of the regular season, against any top-tier opponent, and worst of all in the playoffs.

Kobe #2 unfortunately only exists when things go well, when the sailing is relatively smooth. When shit hits the scoreboard, Kobe reverts to his old self. And therein lies the problems. When the pressure is on, when Los Angeles is truly tested, there will always be the distinct possibility that Kobe will turn into the old Kobe, and thus turn his team into the old Lakers.

Look, I’m not trying to say I told you so, but…History is a bitch. For better of worse you can’t shake that motherfucker. Present and future are always viewed in the context of history. With that said, I feel obliged to say…

The Lakers have done this before. As of this date, Wednesday, January 16th, 2008 the Los Angeles Lakers are 26-11. On Wednesday, January 17th, 2007 the Lakers were 26-13. Familiar?

The Lakers went into the All-Star break in 2007 at 30-24. The remainder of the season saw them go 12-16, sputtering throughout most of the post All-Star break season, and completely humiliating themselves down the stretch.

That’s history. But it is just history, and it doesn’t necessarily have to repeat itself.  When looking at what happened to the Lakers last season, the real question, the only question to ask is: why?

First, there were injuries. Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, Vladimir Radmanovic all went down in the latter part of the season, and in all likelihood injuries won’t hit the Lakers in the same quantity as they did last year.

But not all the Lakers woes last season can be attributed to injury. At some point it became obvious they simply choked. They started off hot and they quickly reached a level where there were now expectations, high expectations, placed on them. And not long after they proved they were unable to consistently live up to the new standard they had set for themselves.

Young players, inexperience, inconsistency – all of these things contributed to the downfall of the Lakers in ’07, and it could potentially derail them again. That largely depends on this team’s ability to get by without Bynum, on Kobe’s persona switching, on Lamar Odom’s level of consistency and intensity, and the leadership of someone like Derek Fisher.

I’m not saying the Lakers are headed for another late season disaster. But I’m also not about to jump on a crowed bandwagon that’s riding around on busted wheels without a road map.

The Lakers are a damn fine basketball team – right now. At the moment, they have a better record than Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, and Orlando. But make sure you get it straight, this is not a hard revolt, this is not the arrival, the Lakers are not contenders. This is a soft revolution, a development, a process, a step along the way to what the Lakers will eventually be.

This season, don’t expect the Lakers to finish as strong as they’ve started. Don’t expect them to make a deep playoff push. It isn’t going to happen this year. But it will happen. Bynum will continue to develop. Players like Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton will continue to improve. And Kobe #2 will eventually defeat Kobe #1 for good.

No, the Lakers aren’t as good as you think they are.

Not yet anyway.