Andrew Bynum. The next Shaquille O'Neal? Not quite. The next Yao Ming? Maybe.
Or at least, that's what Phil Jackson says. Now I would not pay any mind to that statement, as it is undoubtedly said purely with the intent of motivating Andrew and highlighting Phil's current displeasure with him for being nonchalant in taking his sweet time to return from injury. However, it still bodes ominous, as Andrew Bynum's injury history is, to put it in rather basic terms, ugly.
2008 - January knee injury, supposed to only take a few months to heal, kept him out the remainder of the season.
2009 - January knee injury, supposed to only take approximately eight weeks to heal, kept him out till just before the Playoffs, and rendered him ineffective for the duration of the Playoffs.
2010 - March Achilles tear, kept him out of multiple games. Returned before Playoffs, only to aggravate in Playoffs an underlying meniscus tear that often rendered him ineffective during said Playoffs, the treatment of which has delayed his debut to this season.
Asides from 06-07, Bynum has never played more than 65 games in a season, often coming nowhere near even that mark.
Now, Bynum is only 23 years old, and many of his injuries have been attributed to freak accidents, but this is still a worrying pattern. Also worrying is the fact that he has never returned from injury on time, due to a slow rate of healing and a reportedly 'poor work ethic', highlighted in how he often handled treatment with his own doctors instead of those of the team, occasionally causing clashes.
According to many, this is all worth it for Bynum's 'untold potential to dominate', and that due to his age he is sure to get better, that he improves significantly every year during the portions he's not injured. But is that really the case any more? His per-36 stats for the 08-09 and 09-10 seasons are virtually identitical, and both seasons have been significantly hampered by injury.
Many would argue that he has made critical improvements in both defense and intangibles, showing grit and toughness in the Playoffs in particular, but will that hold consistent? It is impossible to tell. It certainly does not bode well that he nonchalantly pushes back his recovery time (after already having delayed surgery to get in some holiday time), and does so much to the ire of Phil. But this is nothing new, he has done similar things before.
Now I'd like to make it clear here that I am not by any means an Andrew Bynum hater, I was pulling for him all of last season and indeed was lobbying for him to get more shots at several points last season.
So what am I trying to say with all this?
Basically, Bynum is who he is, he seems to have roughly levelled out, for now. Maybe his injury concerns disappear, maybe he develops further as a player. But over the last two seasons, he hasn't changed much, and we probably shouldn't bank on any major improvement this season. If he does, that's great. If he doesn't... well, we've already won two Championships without major contributions from him. However, considering the new threat coming out of the East this season, it would be damned nice if he did improve, as they simply won't be able to guard him.
Role on the Team:
Defense and rebounding, adding length. He can and will score easy points off of cuts and offensive rebounds. He'll also occasionally be called upon to post up and create for himself and others, particularly when Pau is on the bench. I expect Bynum to get a lot more run with the second unit this year, in which he will be able to look for his own offense more and anchor the post. With the addition of Steve Blake, the second unit is far more steady, and thus Phil will have the chance to experiment with putting Bynum out there, instead of having to use Pau in an attempt to maintain order. Of course, none of this will happen until he returns from injury, which could be anywhere between mid-November (Jackson's prediction) to December (Bynum's own prediction). It is even possible Phil starts Lamar over Bynum, particularly if Lamar keeps up the good play following his Team USA performance.
Best-Case Scenario for the Upcoming Season:
Andrew Bynum is motivated by Phil's talk of him being a 'spot-player', puts 100% effort in to rehab, and comes back the second week into November. He returns sharp, putting in full effort on defense and rebounding and knowing where to be at all times. He has put on some more muscle over the offseason, and learnt some new moves which have enabled him to score easier; which he puts to use particularly when playing with the second unit, who utilise him as their primary scorer. With the starters, he plays in more of an enforcer role, putting up a monster defensive season with 3 blocks per game and countless altered shots; but he also scores often off of offensive rebounds and cuts.
When on the court with Pau Gasol, they sync perfectly to simply overwhelm opposing frontcourts on both ends of the floor, with their 14 feet of shot-blocking on the defensive end, and their crisp passing and volleyball-style offensive rebounding on the other end of the floor. With Lamar Odom in the game at Power Forward, Andrew moves into his natural position as a post-up player, scoring efficiently.
He puts up a solid 18/10.5/3 for the season, shooting 60% from the field and 78% from the line. This is garnished with 3 assists and a steal per game due to a heightened understanding of the Triangle offense and a significantly increased effort on defense. After his initial recovery, he does not get injured for the remainder of the season. Although it is highly unlikely he makes the All-Star team as a starter due to the Chinese influence on the Ballots in voting for Yao Ming, he makes the team as a reserve and shines in the game.
If the Lakers happen to face Miami in the Finals, he exploits their complete lack of a decent-calibre center to absolutely dominate, putting up 24/12/4 for the series. In fact, he would win Finals MVP if not for an unfortunate incident in Game Three where he goes to block LeBron James' dunk attempt and ends up putting Lebron James out of action for the rest of the Playoffs, earning him a spot in David Stern's shit-list. As is, much to ESPN's horror, Kobe Bryant wins Finals MVP.
Worst-Case Scenario for the Upcoming Season:
Bynum is disheartened by Phil's talk of playing limited minutes, and does not put much effort into rehab, resulting in him not returning to action until the New Year. However, Phil's fears soon prove to be well-founded, as Bynum is forced into playing extended minutes in a game Pau misses; and due to his lack of conditioning suffers another injury.
Bynum struggles to return, and eventually does end up taking a Yao Ming-style role, playing limited minutes and only in selected games. This keeps him out-of-rhythm when he does play, and effectively hamstrings the Lakers' frontline, resulting in Kobe having to overexert himself to win Regular Season games.
He does not make the All-Star team and thus films an expletive-laced Youtube video criticising the League, the Coaches and the Fans for this. This video results in a significant suspension handed down from the League office.
As neither Derrick Caracter or Theo Ratliff are able to take heavy minutes in Bynum's absence, Phil is required to heavily overuse Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom to the point they are over-fatigued come Playoff time.
Expected Scenario for the Upcoming Season:
Essentially, more of the same. It is highly unlikely Bynum is going to regress as a player, however there is no indication of improvement. During the offseason, Andrew went to watch the World Cup before returning and soon undergoing surgery. Bynum is yet to be cleared for basketball-related activities, so there is no way he has made any tangible on-court progress during this offseason.
He may make small strides forward, particularly in defense; but to expect any significant improvement, particularly on such a loaded team, is unreasonable. However, it may well go that Phil experiments with playing him far more with the second unit, maybe even occasionally benching him in favour of Lamar Odom. That is particularly likely if Odom continues showing good signs after his Team USA performance; and this could benefit Bynum (provided he takes the blow to his ego well), in that it allows him more opportunity to have the ball in his hands as the first option of the second unit, giving him more experience as a go-to guy.
He'll likely hover around 60 Regular Season games for the upcoming season, and his stats may take a minute uptick. His scoring and rebounding should not be too heavily focused on, considering the pre-existent talent the Lakers have in both those aspects, but one stat to watch will be his blocks. Look for both his blocks and assists per game to improve, as he experienced a down season in both aspects last year.
He'll make the All-Star team as a Reserve, simply due to the lack of significant options in the West. Yao Ming is a lock to start provided he is still healthy at the time, and the only other real options at reserve are Marc Gasol or Chris Kaman, neither of which belong to serious contenders.