Andrew Bynum is genuinely regarded as the 2nd best center in the league. He is averaging almost 18 points and 13 rebounds per game. He was not only selected to his first All-Star game, but voted in as a starter. These are the reasons that many are claiming this a breakout season for the young man. Unfortunately for them, they couldn't be more wrong.
The definition of breakout is "to develop suddenly and forcefully." They key word here is "develop". It implies that something has changed and in this context, changed for the better. Therein lies the problem: Bynum has not improved significantly. In fact, one could make the case that he isn't any better than he was in 2007-2008.
Don't believe me? Fine. Then can you identify which of these Bynum stat lines is from 2008 and which one is this season:
(Stats are per 36 minutes)
To see the answer continue below the jump.
The first line is from the 2007-2008 season, the latter is this year. These stats are "per 36 minutes" stats. The 2007-2008 Bynum was producing at the same level as the current version per minute, perhaps better. This has gone virtually unnoticed by the majority of fans because of the increased minutes that Bynum has played this season which have pushed his per game averages to new heights.
It is also evident in his advanced statistics:
In 2007-08 Bynum scored more efficiently, rebounded at a near identical rate, had a higher assist rate, higher block rate, and lower turnover rate. His PER was slightly lower because he was a lower usage player, but his Win Shares per 48 minutes were higher. He was at least as good per minute as he is now.
With regards to scoring efficiency, my initial thought was that the 2008 Bynum must have been getting set up for more easy baskets, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Here is a table showing his field goal percentage and the percentage of baskets that were assisted:
The thing that jumps out most is that Bynum had fewer assisted baskets in 2008 than he is getting this season and that he was scoring at a more efficient rate from 3-9 feet out in 2008. It certainly doesn't appear that Bynum's higher field goal percentage is due to him being spoon fed easy baskets.
The only area where the current Bynum wins the battle is in defensive rating, primarily as a result of less fouling (see first table for fouls). Four seasons ago Bynum had two things going against him with regards to fouls: 1) He was a young player who typically got rookie treatment from the officials, and 2) The refs called numerous fouls against Bynum when the offensive player initiated the contact. This season the referees have made a concerted effort to not give the offensive player the whistle when they initiate the contact. These two changes have transformed Bynum into the second best defensive center in the league. Offensively though, he is performing right at the same level he did four seasons ago.
Bynum's true breakout season in 2007-2008 has often been forgotten because it was so short-lived. Bynum began the season as the third center on the depth chart behind Kwame Brown and Ronny Turiaf. An injury to Kwame Brown early in the season finally opened up some time for Bynum to see the floor as the back-up center. It took a few games but eventually Bynum passed Turiaf on the depth chart and took over the starting role. As games began to accumulate, Phil began to increase his minutes. He went from 15-20 minutes at the start of the season to 32 minutes (close to what he plays now) by January. In fact, in the month of January he averaged 17.3 points and 12.2 rebounds, both very close to the 17.8 and 12.6 he is averaging currently.
Then it all came crashing down in Memphis when Bynum suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Lakers would pull off a trade landing Pau Gasol a few games later and eventually ride the Kobe Bryant - Pau Gasol duo to a NBA Finals appearance, thus overshadowing the breakout season by Bynum. In addition to forgetting about Bynum's individual emergence, most forget about how good those Lakers were even prior to the Gasol acquisition. When Bynum went down, the Lakers were 25-11, only half a game behind Dallas and Phoenix, and would take over the top spot in the West before the big Spaniard ever put on the purple and gold.
Bynum is having a great season and it's easy to see how some would call it a breakout season. But his real breakout season was in 2007-2008. Had he been given more minutes by Phil earlier and not gotten injured later, his stats would have matched this season's. To have a breakout season, a player must do something he has never done before. He is staying healthy (knock on wood) but statistically he isn't doing anything new. He is almost unanimously viewed as the second best center in the league right now, but he may very well have earned that title in 2008. That is why I am calling this Bynum's great non-breakout season.