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What's Ailing Andrew Bynum?

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Let's not beat around the bush: In the first round of the playoffs, against the Utah Jazz, Andrew Bynum sucked. But just for fun, let's review:

  • He shot a horrbile .391 from the field, averaging only five points per game.
  • He had almost twice as many turnovers (nine) as blocks (five).
  • He had more fouls (16) than rebounds (15).
  • He averaged only three rebounds per game.

In addition to the above statistics, his timing was off, his defense was a complete disappointment, and his ability to clog up the middle and hinder the offense was felt more on offense than on defense. Against a Utah Jazz team completely missing an actual center, whose "bigs" he towered over, he was constantly out-rebounded — by a lot.

We know all of this this; Bynum's terrible play in the first round is not in question. The important question here is, "Why?" And then, of course, "Will it continue?" While no one can predict the future, I'm going to do my best to give you some possible answers.

Bynum's poor showing over five games was particularly disappointing for Laker fans, because his return at the end of the regular season had seemed promising. Though his timing was still off and his defense and rebounding were not yet what they had been prior to his most recent knee injury, he had seemed to regain his form offensively much more quickly than he had in his first comeback from injury, giving us some reasonable hope that the defense and rebounding were not far behind.

So what gives? Here are four reasons for which his return appeared promising in the final four games of the regular season, and then suddenly fell flat in the first round of the playoffs.

1. He is coming back from injury

It's all good and well to take heart from a strong early showing, particularly on the offensive end of the court, and hope for a quick rehab to pre-injury form. And of course, Laker fans are well known for having high expectations, both of the Lakers as a team and of individual players. It's my personal belief that Laker fans' high expectations play a significant part in the Lakers consistent greatness over so many decades — a fanbase that will not accept mediocrity puts pressure on ownership, management, and players to deliver at a higih level.

That said, a dose of realism may be the best prescription for Laker fans at this point. Bynum played only the last four games of the regular season before the playoffs started. To date, he has played only nine games since returning from injury. Even now, he plays with a knee brace, which is said to hinder his mobility at least a little bit. To expect him to be dominant almost immediately after returning from an injury that caused him to miss 33 games is, quite frankly, absurd.

2. He is a playoff virgin

Technically, Andrew Bynum has played in one other postseason, logging some minutes against Phoenix a couple years ago. But he only got a few minutes in that series, and didn't have any real opportunity to make a significant impact or even get a true taste of what playoff basketball is like.

Kevin Ding of the OC Register makes an important point about the NBA playoffs:

The beauty of the NBA playoffs is how dramatically the level of play goes up, both mentally and physically. This is not something you've faced or overcome before with no college ball and just 57 previous postseason minutes (and 77 more in the recent Utah series). Even Kobe Bryant shot air balls as a rookie. You are simply not mentally equipped to rock this world yet.

So accept that you're going to have some growing pains.

For a player that has never truly experienced the playoffs, this is a completely new experience, and it should be expected that there will be an adjustment period, during which he will struggle. In time, he will figure out what this new thing called "the playoffs" is all about, and he'll learn to elevate and adapt his game to be as successful in the postseason as he has been in the regular season — perhaps even more so. That may happen over the next month, or it may take until next year for Bynum to truly put his stamp on the months of May and June.

So Laker fans need to accept that they may not see Bynum at his very best in these playoffs. Take heart though, because this is a learning experience for him, and he will learn as he goes — and he will be better in May and June than he was in late April. But again, to expect postseason dominance from Andrew Bynum when he's barely even played a game in this type of setting and atmosphere is simply unrealistic.

3. Utah was a poor matchup for him

For a player coming back from injury and diving straight into his first real playoff experience, a series against Utah was a bad way to start. The Jazz don't have a true center — even if Okur had been able to play more than a few minutes in the series, he is a perimeter shooter, not a back-to-the-basket banger. This meant that Andrew was unable to play the kind of game that suits him best — that of a true center, on both ends of the court, "banging down low" under the basket.

Offensively, he had a difficult time adjusting to the smaller, quicker defenders that Utah threw at him in hordes. He also struggled with Utah's push-grab-hack defense, and the very high foul rate that is an inherent part of any game involving the Jazz. The Jazz had an easy time drawing fouls on Bynum, and his foul trouble prevented him from getting the kind of playing time that he needed to adjust to the looks Utah was sending at him, break through offensively, and hit any kind of rhythm.

Defensively, the Jazz were quicker, more physical, and more desperate — and though no one here is complaining about the officiating, they tended to get the benefit of calls involving the Lakers' young center (no conspiracy theories or pity parties, please — the Lakers got the whistle advantage in other areas).

Expect Bynum to play better against a traditional center. Yao will not be an easy task by any measure, but Bynum understands better how to guard him on defense, and how to attack him on offense, and there will fewer adjustments for Andrew to make in order to have success.

He's young and foolish

If you're Andrew Bynum, you're pretty frustrated right now. You had a breakout season last year, were starting to average huge numbers and be a major presence on the court... and then you got injured. Coming back from injury and getting back to that level was a difficult and slow process, but once again, you were figuring it out in January... and then you got injured. Again.

Now you're back, and you're ready to show that you've got what it takes. You've heard the mantras about defense, and especially your involvement on that end of the court — but defense doesn't impress very many people, and you desperately want to impress.

That is Andrew Bynum right now. And as a result, his play in the first round was often immature and a bit selfish. Rather than focusing on defense and rebounding, as the coaching staff had asked him to, he was primarily concerned with getting his numbers on offense. When the baskets didn't come easily, he often forced his shot — even when a much better shot existed for a teammate — resulting in his miserably low shooting percentage against Utah.

Why did Bynum play so few minutes in the last couple games against Utah? A significant reason probably was Utah's smaller, quicker lineup, that caused matchup issues when Bynum was on the floor, as Phil Jackson stated. But I'm guessing that Jackson was also teaching Bynum a little lesson: "If you want to play, you do what I ask you; if I ask you to defend and rebound, and instead you focus on offense and force your shot, you're going to get benched."

The good news for the Lakers is that the more traditional matchup against Yao Ming should make Bynum's job in some ways easier — at least, easier to understand — and the challenge of playing against one of the best centers in the league should renew Bynum's interest on the defensive end. Make no mistake, Bynum has high hopes for himself, and would love to one day be considered one of the best (if not the best) centers in the league. He knows full well that shutting down Yao Ming would be a big personal statement for him.

Should we expect him to shut down Yao Ming? No, not at all. But if he's motivated and engaged on defense, which I expect he will be, he has the physical ability to make Yao's life quite difficult.

Wait and See

Now let's consider the full context, for Andrew Bynum. He's a playoff newbie, which is tough enough all by itself. On top of that, he's having to adjust to playoff basketball while coming back from injury, and he's doing it with an uncomfortable and sometimes limiting brace on his knee. As if that wasn't bad enough, he's had to do all of that in one of the worst matchups he could have. He's young, he's frustrated, and as a result, he sometimes gets his priorities a bit confused.

Given all of that, is it really any surprise that he struggled against the Jazz?

At the same time, all of these are things he can work on, things he can improve. And given reports that he has spent extra time in the gym working on his game during the down time, some of which even describe him as the last to leave the gym — wait, isn't that Kobe's gig? — I have every reason to believe he is and will be working to improve these things.

Suiting up against Yao Ming will be a big challenge for Andrew Bynum — but that may be just what he needs to get him engaged defensively and on the boards, and to straighten out his priorities.