After the passing of another season, Andrew Bynum remains the most polarizing figure in all of Lakerdom, not only for his actions on and off the court, but for the unique place he holds in the team's future. Only 23 years old after six seasons in the league, Bynum is the exception among a group of veterans gradually moving towards the wrong side of 30, and one of the few pieces that could conceivably be considered a future building block as the team transitions from the Kobe era. The fruit of the Lakers' only trip to the lottery since the 1994 draft, when the Lakers took Eddie Jones, Bynum has changed dramatically from the skinny 17 year old who still remains the youngest player ever to play in an NBA game.
Even counting from there, however, it is fairly safe to say that last season was a revelation in terms of Bynum's evolution as a player, and that figures significantly into the team's future mindset as the Lakers seek to return to championship form after the playoff debacle against the Mavericks. After the jump, we will look at how Bynum's absence at the start of the year affected the team, his play before and after the All-Star break, and how he appears to fit into the new system Mike Brown is implementing as well as the team's future.
Courtesy of the meniscus injury he suffered last year in the playoffs, Bynum entered the offseason with the expectation of receiving knee surgery, although the manner in which he played through the injury did endear him to the fans as well as the team. At least as far as the fans are considered, that changed rather quickly after Bynum gave Laker Land a punchline to use for the next few months by delaying his surgery to go watch the World Cup in South Africa. While it was likely inconsequential in the greater scheme of things, it was not exactly the best message to be sending to the team and the media by essentially prizing one's summer vacation time over a professional career. Moreover, when the doctors sat down to perform the surgery, whether it was previously planned or after looking at his knee more closely, they decided to repair Bynum's meniscus rather than perform a partial meniscetomy, which was far better for Bynum career-wise, but came with the unfortunate caveat of a much longer recovery time when he was previously scheduled to return in time for training camp.
Obviously, reattaching the cartilage in his knee was the better move, and the recent travails of Brandon Roy, who likely will never be able to string together another All-Star campaign with his bone-on-bone knee troubles outside of the occasional flash of his former brilliance every now and then, stands as painful testament to this. Missing games in November in exchange for more or less lengthening his career was an easy tradeoff to make, and with Bynum as the Lakers' only possible piece to build a future team around, it was a no-brainer. The flip side was that his presence in those November games would have been rather appreciated last season, as after Pau Gasol started the year with a brilliant MVP-caliber level of play, the sheer amount of minutes he was playing eventually simply wore him down.
Part of that was Phil Jackson's refusal to throw Derrick Caracter onto the court after Theo Ratliff got injured and deal with a rookie taking his bumps rather than run his second best player into the ground in order to win meaningless games in November. You also could attach blame to the front office for being penny-pinching in the worst possible way by not throwing the minimum at any veteran with a big body whom Phil would have been comfortable giving minutes rather than a rookie. Perhaps Pau himself failed to overcome some mental block, but rather than play armchair psychologist, it's safe to say that Pau needed another big on the team to relieve him on the court, and with Ratliff out, that was essentially Bynum. Now, as I indicated previously, it's hard to criticize Bynum for making the smart decision for his career, and he certainly isn't to blame for an amazing episode of self-induced stupidity from the Lakers coaching staff and front office, but his presence, or lack thereof, at the start of the year was a contributing factor in the derailing of the Lakers' season.
Even Bynum's return in December didn't fix the Lakers' increasingly stagnant play, and while Gasol was able to reduce his workload, he never was able to put together a stretch analogous to his start to the season. Bynum's play up until the All-Star break was roughly comparable to that of previous years, as he shot high percentages in roughly 30 minutes a game, mixing solid outings with a few unassertive games, and the only difference was that the clamor for him to receive more touches in post became slightly more justified given that Gasol had been converted almost entirely into a midrange jump shooter by that point. As per usual, Bynum also greatly enhanced the Lakers' interior defense, which had been lagging without him, by simply being present on the court. All of that did roughly nothing to dispel the constant malaise of apathy that saw itself manifest in the Lakers' increasingly poor execution and lack of attentiveness to opponents on any given night.
What did change the team's direction, however, was Bynum's transformation into the '00-'01 version of Dikembe Mutombo after the All-Star break, which was nothing short of startling. Fully committing himself to his defensive responsibilities, Bynum was a terror in the interior, shutting down penetration, contesting shooters that came into his range and becoming a rebounding dervish. He was so active that ESPN's J.A. Adande coined the term SOBOA (Shots Over Bynum's Outstretched Arms) and kept a counter for it every game, which was usually incremented frequently considering how well the team funneled threats to Bynum and more often than not, he was there when the defense broke down as well. With Bynum as the heart of the Lakers' new defensive juggernaut, the team rolled to a 17-1 record after the break and restored hopes that the team was regaining its championship form. During the month of March, Bynum averaged 12.7 ppg on 64.6 FG% as well as 13.3 rpg, and showed how dominant a big with his size and mobility can be as the lynchpin of a defense, or in other words, how he was basically Dwight Howard-lite.
While Bynum's intensity declined slightly towards the end of the season, although he did record a 23 rebound game in an embarrassing loss to a depleted Utah team, he reasserted himself in the playoffs in the first round, averaging 15.2 ppg and 10.3 rpg and earning him plaudits from New Orleans coach Monty Williams, who ranked him along with Kobe as the key factors in the series. With Pau having a meltdown of epic proportions under the spotlight, Bynum provided one of the rapidly declining sources of production on the team. He was also one of the few players who didn't fall completely flat during the Dallas series, putting up solid performances in Games 2 and 3.
We would be capable of ending this report much more fondly if Bynum didn't choose the worst possible way to end the season by throwing down a completely undeserved and downright dirty flagrant foul on J.J. Barea when the Lakers were already deep into the red and in the midst of a blowout. Moreover, since Bynum had seen fit to perform a similar act on Minnesota's Michael Beasley earlier in the season, which previously earned him a two game suspension, we will be in the familiar situation of not having Bynum to start the year as he misses the first five games of the season. There really is nothing to discuss on this matter beyond the fact that it was immensely stupid, has no place in the game, and he simply needs to cut it out for his sake and the team's. I am positive that the Lakers would be happy to stomach two points from the player on a drive rather than Bynum sitting out the next fifteen to twenty games if this ever happens again.
Bynum also stoked the flames of controversy when he made passing comments at the end of the season roughly to the effect that he deserved more touches on the offensive end. Now, on one hand, it's hard to argue with him. Pau declined dramatically as a legitimate offensive option after his fantastic start of the season, becoming nothing more than a midrange jump shooter and even failing at that role when the playoffs came along. Throwing Bynum a bone by giving him more post touches, where he has shown to be very effective, between his soft hands, decent moves, and ability to simply overwhelm opposing bigs with his length, strength, and size, wouldn't have been a terrible idea for a good chunk of the season.
Moreover, Bynum has always been somewhat of a straight talker with the media, insofar that he is rather frank at pointing out the team's shortcomings as well as his own without the usual application of vague generalities most players use, so it's safe to say that this was something thought about with the team's needs in mind rather than his own. Given that he slogged through an entire playoffs on a bad knee and obliged everyone from the team to the fans by becoming the dominant defensive player everyone thought he could be, one could say he's earned his due in that regard. On the other hand, assuming Pau reverts back to something resembling his old form next season, it's difficult to say that Bynum, a very good post player in his own right, deserves more touches over Pau, who is masterful at that end when at his best. Kobe's response to Bynum's remarks implied as such, and that's where the pecking order lies.
Thankfully, the arrival of Mike Brown and Ettore Messina may make this all a moot point, as all three should be more than involved in the offense they are implementing. The main difference is that Brown, courtesy of his experience with San Antonio with Tim Duncan and David Robinson, should be able to implement some real sets that utilize two big men with Gasol's and Bynum's post skills rather than the often awkward relationship the two have had in the past in the triangle, where any contributions between the two were almost entirely limited to some high low action. In Brown's offense, however, the two would largely become interchangeable. For instance, Brown's comments on "early offense" during his opening presser were not a reference to running the ball, but to the first big down the floor quickly establishing himself in the post and the play being quickly executed as the other big initiates it from the top of the key, which gets a quick entry pass into the post before the defense can be set. Other instances include more effective double block sets as well as both bigs becoming involved in the pick-and-roll as the one setting the pick becomes an option to pop while the other seals his man for deep position position. For Messina, we will likely see things like cross screens used to help big men establish position in the post, which should help Gasol dramatically as it relieves him from having to try pathetically down there while the other big pushes him almost all the way to the arc, as well as double screening from both bigs to free up a wing, namely Kobe, that forces the defense to concentrate on three dangerous threats (Kobe, Gasol, Bynum) in motion and will almost definitely force a switch.
In short, all three will be involved the offense and where the ball goes will be a consequence of how the defense reacts to all three in motion, which should be cause enough for glee for anyone exasperated by the stagnancy of last year's mainly isolation offense. While this is obviously a theoretical take on how the new offense will be run, and undoubtedly, these sets will not be implemented to perfection off the bat, especially if the lockout erases part of the season, it should stem any budding controversy over the matter, as Bynum will receive roughly the same amount of touches as Gasol when they're on the floor together courtesy of how their roles can be switched at any time. Kobe himself will receive more touches by default as he will be asked to handle more ballhandling responsibilities considering that he's one of the few players on this team capable of running a half-decent pick-and-roll, which is vital to Brown's and Messina's offense. If you want a more detailed breakdown, feel free to peruse these articles from NBA Playbook's Sebastian Pruiti on some sets Mike Brown and Ettore Messina could use.
How Bynum fits into next year's system is also relevant considering that he remains the team's most attractive trade asset and has been thrown into every major Lakers-involved rumor since he got onto the team. This last season, the most relevant one was when his name was brought up in reports that the Lakers were considering swapping him for Carmelo Anthony when he was going through his long drama in Denver that ultimately landed him with the Knicks. This was brought up before the All-Star break, and the consensus appeared to be that Bynum's two-way play was more valuable than Melo's versatile offensive game. Note that this was before Bynum's emergence as a splendid defensive anchor after the All-Star break, and from here, you can understand why Jim Buss claimed that Bynum was "untouchable." True, Melo has flaws, but when it comes down to it, he's a damn good player, and the echelon above him is reserved for the league's top ten players, all of whom you could say are "untouchable" as well. This isn't to say that Bynum is a player of that caliber, but that that is the value at which the Lakers have set him at in trade discussions, which is understandable.
Now, the Lakers haven't been offered anyone in that range, as contrary to what everyone says is going to happen, an offer for Dwight Howard or Chris Paul isn't on the table at the moment for the Lakers or anyone in the league for that matter. If a reasonable offer for Howard were available and Jim Buss turns it down, then anger at the "untouchable" label would be justified, but that hypothetical offer presently does not exist. At the moment, Bynum appears to be a key component of Brown's offensive and defensive systems and it is difficult to see any offer that does not include any of the aforementioned players getting him to switch jerseys.
In any case, Bynum's grade for this season must balance the time he lost at the start of the year, his play before and after the All-Star break and his playoff performances. As I previously noted, the decision to repair his meniscus instead of taking it out was a solid move for his overall career, and an extra week or so one way or another spent in South Africa wasn't going to change the fact that he was definitely going to be out for a fair chunk of the early part of the year, so I'm excluding it grading-wise. His play pre-ASG would likely merit a B+, as it was much of what we expected from Bynum, whereas his post-ASG play deserves a solid A+ minted in gold for being the only non-Odom player to not only progress this year, but blow our expectations out of the water. His work in the playoffs by itself would likely earn an A-, but that moronic hit on Barea and the subsequent effect it will have on next season cuts that down a few notches to a B-. We'll weigh all that together, and hope that Bynum will come with that same defensive intensity as the team takes another crack at adding another banner.
Season Grade: B+
Sasha Vujacic.... F
Trey Johnson.... C
Joe Smith.... D+
Theo Ratliff.... D-
Devin Ebanks.... C-
Derrick Caracter.... D+
Luke Walton.... F
Shannon Brown.... C
Steve Blake.... C-
Lamar Odom.... A-
Derek Fisher.... C-
Ron Artest.... C+