While the Lakers have gotten off to a very impressive 10-2 start to the season, the team has done so despite the absence of its third-best player, center Andrew Bynum. And while it’s generally accepted that Bynum’s presence makes the two-time defending champions a better team, it may be hard to clearly see how his presence has impacted the team because the Lakers have generally managed to blow their opponents out of the water. In order to truly understand Bynum’s effect, you have to crunch some numbers.
The first and most obvious place to look is shot-blocking. Last season, Bynum’s seven-foot frame blocked 1.4 shots per game (keep in mind he played only 30 minutes per game). As a team last season, the Lakers blocked 5.2 shots per game, which put them 11th among all teams. Through twelve games this season, the Lakers rank 24th in the NBA with only 3.9 blocked shots per contest. The lack of a shot-blocker to protect the rim has resulted in an increase in the number of points in the paint per game scored by the Lakers’ opponents.
Last season, the Lakers ranked 10th in the league in opponent points in the paint per game, surrendering just 40.2 per game. So far this season the Lakers have given up 44.2 in the paint per game, making them 22nd in the league. While those four points might not seem like a lot, you would be surprised how many games in the NBA are decided by margins like that; through its first twelve games, the Lakers have had four games decided by five points or less. And remember, not only does a shot blocker directly reject balls from reaching the basket, but a shot blocker changes the trajectory of shots and serves as an intimidation factor that forces penetrating players to make the extra pass. The numbers do not capture the full effect.
The increased points in the paint have led to an overall increase in points per game by the Lakers’ opponents. If you have watched any Lakers basketball this season, you have probably noticed that the Lakers have only held their opponents under 100 points in four of their twelve games. Last season, it was the Lakers’ defense that really enabled the team to win its second consecutive championship. The Lakers held opponents to only 97.0 points per game (10th in the NBA). This season, without Bynum, the Lakers have allowed a whopping 102.8 points per game, which is worse than the defensively-inept Golden State Warriors, (102.7), the 2-10 Philadelphia 76ers (102.4), and the LeBron James-less Cleveland Cavaliers (99.1); the Lakers’ 102.8-mark is good for 19th-best in the league, definitely not a stat fit for a champion.
Finally, if you are an astute reader and basketball fan, you are probably interested to see the effect Bynum’s absence has had on the team’s rebounding numbers. Oddly enough, the Lakers are near the top of the league in defensive, offensive, and total rebounds per game. Furthermore, their rebound averages are higher than their averages for last season. However, these stats are a bit misleading. Instead, let’s look at how the Lakers’ opponents have rebounded against the Lakers without Bynum in the lineup to take up space and grab boards. The Lakers currently rank second-to-last (29th) in opponent offensive rebounds per game, allowing 14.3 offensive rebounds per content to their foes; that number is up from last season (11.2). If you want to win in the NBA, you have to limit your opponents’ second-chance points.
Ultimately, although it’s great to see the Lakers win shootouts in early November, any NBA fan will tell you that it’s much more satisfying to see your team win the close, grind-it-out games in May and June. If the Lakers want to win those games and lock up a three-peat, they will need to get Bynum back in the lineup at full strength so that he can plug up the middle and shore up their defense. Here’s to hoping that Bynum’s knee holds up better than Greg Oden’s. Oh, and for pete’s sake, stay out of trouble, big fella!