"The first casualty when war comes is truth."- Hiram Johnson
The quest for athletic supremacy has long been a battle where only the strongest of gladiator survives. It is in the championship arena where we as spectators learn what truly lurks in the hearts of our celebrated warriors.
The championship arena is where Pau Gasol learned he needed to come harder, where LeBron James learned how heavy the crown truly is and where Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell became legendary.
The playoffs are simply where truth overtakes hope.
The truth is undeniable and unapologetic: This is the way of a vested champion, and it is this conquest that sits before Andrew Bynum. The Los Angeles Lakers center will enter the 2011-2012 postseason as the unquestioned leader of the team for the first time in his enigmatic career. Yes, Bynum has played in two NBA Finals before, but this will be the first time he enters with the bull's-eye on his back and expectations upon his shoulders.
In the 2009-2010 postseason, the seven-footer’s playoff minutes and scoring rose from the previous year, and Bynum played well in spurts. However, he only had two double-figure scoring games in the NBA Finals, and one double-figure rebound game. While anticipation was building, it was abruptly clear it was not his time.
The 2010-2011 postseason was swift and filled with controversy, and it was in those battles where the Jersey native showed he possessed the heart of fighter. In just one season, Bynum went from a paltry 8.6 points per game, to a strong 14.4 points. It was this postseason that the boyish grin Bynum displayed so often in his career was replaced with a grown-man scowl. It was in this postseason that he displayed a true grit that up to that point had yet to be seen.
A lockout, coaching change and suspension seemed to have energized the young man who desires to be king. Bynum’s call to arms was expected this season, but the question was whether or not he could deliver consistently. Would the team respect his demands for the ball or bypass him for proven deliverance?
His emergence began with the belief and constant reinforcement to be aggressive from head coach Mike Brown. Coach Brown has a history of working well with big men, going back to his San Antonio days and working with Malik Rose, who would play a vital role in the Spurs' championship season. By far Bynum is Brown’s biggest achievement and remains his biggest question mark.
The player who used to beg for the table scraps of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and—depending on which way the wind was blowing—the man formerly known as Ron Artest, is now the sitting at the head of the table. To date, Bynum should be the hands-down winner of the Most Improved Player of the Year award. Some could argue he should be first-team All-NBA, and Brown deserves a gargantuan amount of the credit.
The center has earned the respect of his teammates, who have deferred to Bynum and have grown to trust him late in games. Now it is time for the center to take the big stage. The same tenacity that has gotten the big fella 33 double-doubles in 50 starts and 47 games of 10-or-more points, now must be displayed where legends are formed.
If healthy, there is no center in the Western Conference who can stop or even deter "the Grown Man." If focused, Bynum can lead this team to the Finals regardless of who is at point guard or small forward—but "ifs" don’t win titles; certainty does.
Bynum has spent the entire regular season sharpening his sword and slaying unequipped adversary after adversary—but, in a moment, the true games will begin and we will find out what this gladiator is truly made of.
Many players have wilted under dimmer lights and less spectators than where Bynum will fall. The talent is there, and slowly the achievement is meeting the acclaim—but all will be for naught if he falls early in battle. His truth will be that of a player who is not capable of carrying his emperor’s kingdom to victory. Sitting beside Bynum are some of the game’s most decorated players, but time has voided them of consistent greatness. They are now left with good plays interrupted by the amazing.
This brings us back to Mount Bynum. Any success the Lakers are to have this postseason rest squarely on the shoulders of the Jersey native. If the playoffs were to start today, L.A. would face a familiar foe in the Dallas Mavericks, and so far this season the Lakers are 3-0 against the Mavericks. In those three contests, Bynum has averaged 15 points, 12 rebounds and one block, and that is not good enough. Those numbers are not indicative of Bynum’s skill set and could lead L.A. back to an early offseason.
Bynum has to be dominant from the outset. The center has to announce his playoff presence with the same authority used when he opened the 2011-2012 season. The Mavericks, Spurs and Thunder do not have a player capable of slowing Bynum down on the road to the NBA Finals. The center just has to walk that path.
Gone are the excuses and tempered enthusiasm. Here are the expectations of dominance from a dominant force. Bynum can no longer enter the arena and return blows; he must initiate them. No other player on this roster will be counted upon as the young man who desired to be king.
The Lakers have groomed their gladiator for battle—he has never stood on the front lines, but bears the scars of strife and war. Now he must lead his group into the arena as first in command. What is expected has been documented, however what will occur is uncertain.