The Los Angeles Lakers and Charlotte Bobcats have announced a trade today: the Lakers send Vladimir Radmanovic to Charlotte for Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown. This trade is more about freeing up some cap space for next year rather than making a big move. Radman and Morrison are two players who see only limited playing time and neither player's absence will affect either team significantly. Adam Morrison was a phenomenal college player at Gonzaga and was selected third overall in the draft in 2006, but has not adjusted well to the NBA. Early in his career he had a knee injury, and he's never had the speed or defensive sharpness needed to make it big in the NBA. It's safe to say that so far his professional career has been a disappointment. Interestingly, Morrison was the first round pick by Charlotte, which was at the time (and still is) headed by Michael Jordan. MJ was also the executive responsible for the Wizards drafting Kwame Brown, another player whose professional career never panned out and who played for the Lakers. I don't expect Morrison will see nearly as much PT as Kwame got in those years he played with the Purple and Gold.
The Lakers won their sixth straight game today capping off their six game road trip by besting the Cleveland Caveliers 101-91. Kobe Bryant was reportedly feeling under the weather and didn't have a major impact on the game, but Lamar Odom played very well, with 28 pts and 17 boards, both season highs. Prior to Bynum's knee injury, Lamar was coming off the bench and was playing limited minutes when compared to previous seasons. With Bynum's absence from the lineup, he will be called on to start games and will need to stack up boards and easy points like he did today.
Despite Bynum's injury, I think it's safe to say that the Lakers are the hottest team in the league as we head into the week preceding the All Star Game break. They have the best record (41-9) and have beaten the Celtics and the Cavs on the road in the last week, as well as winning against Cleveland and the Spurs at home in the past three weeks. Of course, we are still a fair stretch away from the postseason, and anything can happen between now and April, but if the Lakers can stay healthy and focused they are going to have another very successful postseason. On Tuesday the Thunder come to LA and then on Wednesday the Lakers fly out to Salt Lake City to play the Jazz. The team is then off until Tuesday the 17th, when they play at home against the Atlanta Hawks.
Last Saturday in a game against the Memphis Grizzlies, the ever-improving center Andrew Bynum suffered an injury when Kobe Bryant collided into his right knee. The result was a torn MCL and will be out 8 to 12 weeks. That means his return date, if it happens at all this season, would be sometime in April. It also means he would (likely) be out of shape and out of sync with his team. Last year Bynum suffered a similar injury in January, but in his left knee. That injury sidelined the budding Bynum, but doctors were optimistic and announced that he'd be back in 8 weeks. Unfortunately, 8 weeks turned into the rest of the season, and Bynum was not on the active roster come the postseason. His lack of size, energy, and skills were part of the reason the Lakers stumbled in the Finals, as they were routinely outsized and outplayed underneath the rim. And not to be too dire, but Kobe is suffering from his own set of ailments - his finger and shoulder, for instance - yet I somehow doubt Kobe would go on the IR unless his legs were broken or his shooting arm amputated.
Despite the Lakers strong record (currently 39-9 with a 12 game lead in their division), this injury is certainly a setback as they return to their roster from the second half of last year. A roster strong enough to get them into the Finals, but not strong enough to win it all. This year their roster has another year of experience and Pau Gasol has had more time to be integrated into the offense. Pau's also playing with more chutzpah than last year. Compare his performance in the Christmas game this year against the Celtics, when he stepped up late in the 4th and hit several big shots, many of them driving to the basket. In last year's Finals he often looked lost and intimidated. And this year he is playing quite well, both with Bynum in the lineup and without. His stats are on par with his stats last year, but he seems to come up big more often, more comfortable to take an important shot, whereas last year he seemed to be more hesitant, perhaps still feeling out his role on the team and how Kobe would respond if he took a big shot and missed.
What's more, this years Western Conference is weaker than last years. The Spurs are a year older (so old, it seems, that Pop gave Duncan, Manu, and Parker an entire night off!), injuries about for the Jazz and Hornets, the Suns players miss D'Antoni and don't seem to much like playing for their new coach, and while Denver and Portland have a lot of upside, I can't see them beating the Lakers or Spurs in a seven game series. But the East is a Beast this year, with the Celtics, Cavs, and Magic all playing an exceptionally strong first half of the season.
So what's the short term battle plan? The Lakers star players need to step it up a notch, and they have already done so. On Superbowl Sunday Kobe netted 61 in New York against the Knicks, setting a record for most points scored in MSG. And Gasol has had a couple of monster games where he's scored over 30 and racked up more than 10 boards. Tomorrow's game on the road against the Celtics, after playing a game today against the Raptors, will be a good litmus test. Will the Lakers be able to raise their game to the level of the Celtics, who are riding a 12 game win streak? Can Kobe and crew up their game and beat Boston in both of their games this season? I doubt it, given the back-to-back and being in the midst of a long road trip, but a W will sure give the Lakers much needed mental fortitude and a sense that this Celtics team can be beaten sans Bynum. (There's another big game on Sunday in Cleveland against the Cavs that should serve as another litmus test.) Another short term option would be to get another big man on the roster. Perhaps some team will take Lamar Odom and a draft pick for a reliable big man. Don't forget, last year around this time they landed Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies, so you never know what might happen.
Long term, the Lakers are going to have to plan on being Bynum-less the rest of this season. While the doctors say he might come back before the postseason, I am not optimistic given the history. With a healthy and hungry Bynum I think the Lakers are the deepest team in the League and are certainly capable of winning it all. Without Bynum, the Lakers still have a lot of depth and skill and are still the best team in the West, but their ascention to the Finals is more in doubt without Bynum. I still am picking the Lakers to make it to the Finals this year, but I think they are going to lose to a hungry Cavs team spearheaded by the unstoppable LeBron James.