This is the next in our series of Player Report Cards, in which we evaluate and assign a letter grade to the performance of each member of the 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers. Next in line is Andrew Bynum, a.k.a.The Big Potential.
Andrew Bynum may be the most contentious figure in all of Lakerdom. Sure, once you leave the friendly confines of the purple and gold fanbase, you'll find lots of people who don't like Kobe Bryant too much, or people who aren't keen on Derek Fisher's skill in the art of elaboration. People still hold a grudge against Ron Artest for past transgressions, and Phil Jackson has a legion of people who dislike his smug demeanor and seem willing to dismiss his "Best Coach Ever" legacy by claiming its the quality of his players, not his coaching ability, which is the reason for his unprecedented success. In house, however, there is no player two Lakers fans are more likely to disagree on than big Drew.
That's because Andrew Bynum represents the basketball equivalent of Let's Make a Deal. Based on his current career progression, one could easily see a couple of distinctly different career arcs for our young center. Behind door number 1, one looks at his soft hands, very good length (long arms on top of a legit 7 foot frame), and polished inside post moves that plenty of 10 year pros never develop, and they see a guy who has the potential to become the best center in the league (which is a virtual guarantee that you'll be in the mix for championships assuming a certain caliber of teammate). Behind door number 2, his long list of injuries might have already cut into his athleticism, and we can look forward to more years following the same pattern of moderate success followed by untimely injury that we've seen for the past three seasons. When it comes to Drew, all we can do is sit and ponder whether or not we'd be better off taking what's in the suitcase (some sort of trade bringing in another big piece).
The Chris Bosh situation illustrated this perfectly. When it was rumored that Toronto might be interested in moving Chris Bosh for Andrew Bynum and spare parts, some people thought it was a great idea, because Bosh is a known entity that is currently superior to Andrew. Others weren't so sure, because Bynum has the potential to develop into a player that is more capable of dominance than Bosh is. And the back and forth on this subject rarely stayed in the realm of the friendly. We Laker fans seem to be pretty passionate about our stance on the whole "trade Bynum/keep Bynum" question, regardless of what said stance is.
So how did Drew fare in his first season making the big bucks? Unlike in previous seasons coming off of injury, Bynum jumped out of the gate fast, posting 18 points and 10 boards through the first month of the season when he was the only real option inside. However, the return of Pau Gasol caused Drew to struggle. There was all kinds of talk about how he and Gasol couldn't play together, and while that talk was backed up by plenty of legitimate proof (right down to a game by game basis where one or the other could dominate, but not both), the talk just didn't make much sense, because the game both players provide should theoretically mesh just fine.
Well, it took a little while, but Drew and Pau eventually seemed to figure things out. After a dip down to 12 and 6 in December, Bynum's numbers in January rose to 17 and 9, with Pau chipping in his own 17.5 and 10. Bynum didn't play all that well in February (12 and 8), but picked it up again in March (15 and 9), before we had to go through our seemingly annual "Oh shit, Bynum's hurt again" nightmare. Unlike in seasons past, his injury was not of the super serious variety, but it's placement on the eve of the playoffs inspired plenty of dread in the Lakers fanbase. It's no coincidence whatsoever that the Lakers period of real struggle just before the playoffs occurred while Drew was missing games, and his injury had all the feeling of an event with a legit chance to derail the Lakers hopes of a repeat championship.
Taking a break from the story of Bynum's progression throughout the season, all of the discussion of his play so far has been centered around his offensive importance. However, Drew's major improvement this season, to these eyes at least, was his defense. Drew has always been, and probably always will be, a greater force on the offensive side of the ball, but his defense improved quite nicely this season. His blocks per game actually decreased a bit from last season, but his activity in playing screen roll defense picked up noticibly, and the amount of shots he altered sure seemed to increase pretty dramatically. I feel comfortable in saying that our best defensive lineups now involve Drew being on the floor, and that statement is important because it was the one aspect we were never sure he would ever develop, even with a cooperative bill of health. Now, considering his age (oh yeah, by the way, the dude is still just 22 YEARS OLD), it should be a given that, if the guy can stay on the court, he will be able to fill the role at the center of the defense that we need him to, and develop into an above average center on both sides of the court.
Right, back to the action, action that is all too familiar for us and for Drew, unfortunately. Come playoff time, we were once again left to wonder what Bynum would be able to provide, as he missed the final 13 games of the regular season. He played decently when he returned to the court, averaging a double-double through his first 5 games. But, after just spending all that time on the injured list with an injury to his achilles tendon, he was back only a few games before straining a meniscus (a knee injury for the medically dis-inclined) that would severely hamper him for the remainder of the playoffs. The ill-effects of that injury didn't really make themselves clear until midway through the series against the Utah Jazz, but from that point onward, it was obvious that he was playing far below 100% capacity. There were a few decent games (including his dropping 21 points on the Celtics in game 2's losing effort), but in general, his playoff averages of 9 points and 7 rebounds hardly stand out as game-changing, and his severely limited movement made him a defensive liability for much of the playoffs.
So how does one grade Andrew Bynum? His season was filled with highlights and lowlights, with games in which he looked an unstoppable force on both sides of the ball, and games in which he seemed awkward and unable to find his footing. His injuries can't really be blamed on him, but at the same time, the large number of injuries he's sustained over the past few years are a major cause for concern. All in all, he looks to be somewhere in the high B range, right?
Wrong. Wrong because there is an element of reviewing Andrew Bynum's season that absolutely has to be taken into account: Sacrifice. Andrew Bynum was willing to give more than his body was capable of in the hopes of helping his team win a championship. Nobody, short of Kobe Bryant himself, gave more of himself towards the Lakers championship aims, and any time you are mentioned in the same sentence as Kobe when the terms sacrifice and devotion to winning are concerned, you are doing something very, very right (or at least, very, very noble).
Just take a second to let that sink it. Andrew Bynum is 22 years old. He's had significant injuries for the past three years running. He could have a long and fruitful career to look forward to, one that will see him be well paid for the next decade. Or, with continuing injury trouble, he could see his production taper off and he could fail to reach the heights his talent would seem to indicate. A worst case scenario involves his injuries actually driving him from the league prematurely. In short, once the swelling in his knee reached levels that required mutliple drainings over a short period of time just to keep playing, he had every right to hang it up for the year. Nobody would have batted an eye. His effectiveness on the court was limited, he was in a great deal of pain, and to continue playing on the damaged knee allowed for the possibility of a much more serious injury to occur. Considering his previous injury history, one could easily make the point that Andrew Bynum risked his career, including the millions upon millions of dollars he would have earned, so that he could play nothing more than a bit part in the Lakers' championship run.
Even as Andrew Bynum has developed into a top 5 center (in a league admittedly devoid of many decent ones), we've had concerns about him. The injuries are still ever-present. However, if you can take one thing away from this season regarding Andrew, let it be that this guy is a winner, a player who knows what it takes to take home the big prize, and is willing to do ANYTHING he can to make that happen. Based upon his slow return from injuries in previous years, and the certain comments he's made concerning a desire for personal accolades, his desire to win wasn't fully known. Now, it can not be questioned.
Andrew Bynum is 22 years old, already possesses one of the more refined post games in the league, and is learning in great strides on defense. We'll never know if he can get through an entire season without injury until he does, but I know I'm not alone in saying this: You can go ahead and put that suitcase away, because I want to know what's behind door number 3.
Final Grade: Quite literally, an A for effort.