Andrew Bynum: Just Call Him Mr. January
It's funny how the schedule makers in every sport seem to find a way to schedule a few games each season that can't just be explained by luck.
Don't confuse fluke scheduling with deliberate scheduling. For example, nobody should be surprised if the Red Sox and Yankees or Cardinals and Cubs were to play each other the final week of the regular season.
What I'm talking about is the kind of scheduling we saw the opening weekend of the NFL playoffs when three of the four games were rematches of games played the Sunday before.
In the NBA, the scheduling gods don't seem to bless us as often as we'd like but every once in a while a game comes out of nowhere that makes us wonder how a certain two teams just so happen to play each other on a certain day.
Los Angeles Lakers starting center Andrew Bynum has suffered knee injuries the past two Januarys in games against the Memphis Grizzlies. Bynum hasn't played a game in the month of February since Feb. 26, 2007.
Starting this Thursday, the Lakers begin a road trip that sees them playing eight games in 12 days. The road trip ends on Feb. 1 in—you guessed it—Memphis.
What's remarkable about Bynum's knee injuries is that both occurred during the two best stretches of his career.
The numbers don't lie.
In January of 2008, Bynum was averaging 18.8 points and 12.8 rebounds per game before suffering a subluxation to his knee.
But the biggest stat at the time of the injury was the Lakers' 25-11 record. Keep in mind that this was just a few months after Kobe Bryant had asked the team to trade him because he didn't want to waste the remaining years of his prime on a rebuilding team.
So while many fans, media members, and NBA people love to point out how the Lakers mugged the Grizzlies when they traded for Pau Gasol, those same people seem to forget that the Gasol trade was a byproduct of Bynum's injury.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has gone on record saying that the Lakers would not have made the Gasol trade had Bynum not suffered the injury.
Bynum never played another game that season and was sidelined as the Lakers fell to the Boston Celtics in the Finals that June.
He returned to the active lineup at the start of the 2008-09 season. In addition to finding ways to bounce back from the injury he also had to find a way to coexist with Gasol—with whom he'd yet to play a game.
While Bynum had had stretches here and there of good games he hadn't registered a single 20-point game through the team's first 46 games.
But once the calendar changed to 2009 he was beginning to resemble the player he was before that first injury. In the 12 games between Jan. 7 and Jan. 30, Bynum was averaging 20.8 ppg and 8.7 rpg—including a 42-point game and four games where he pulled down 14 or more rebounds.
But on Jan. 31 Bynum suffered his second knee injury—this time a torn MCL that kept him out of the Lakers' next 32 games.
He did manage to return before the end of the regular season but he never resembled the player he was in either of the previous Januarys.
This season Bynum has played his best basketball with Gasol on the sidelines due to separate hamstring injuries.
But the pattern of Bynum playing his basketball in the year's first month has continued. Excluding Monday night's game–where he played a season-low 22 minutes in a victory over the Orlando Magic due to gastrointestinal problems—he is averaging 18.8 ppg and 9.7 rpg in 2010.
His annual renaissance could not have come at a better time for the Lakers, who currently have a two-game lead in the loss column over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the race for the league's best record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
The two teams meet for the second time this season Thursday night in front of a nationally-televised audience.
The Cavs have won two more road games than the Lakers have played this season so this road trip could have a great impact on which team would have home-court advantage should the two teams meet in the NBA Finals.
With Kobe dealing with broken fingers and back spasms and Gasol's recent hamstring injuries, both have made a concerted attempt to get Bynum involved on the offensive end early to help ease the burden on themselves.
While Bynum still has to figure out ways to stay out of foul trouble early in games, his reputation has improved so much that the Peter Vecsey of The New York Post recently reported that the Lakers and Toronto Raptors were discussing a trade involving Bynum and Chris Bosh—one of the league's best players.
Gasol and Bynum are still a work in progress. Not so surprising when you realize they have yet to play 100 games together. Thursday night's game in Cleveland will only be the 97th including playoff games and many of those 97 were played with Bynum recovering from his two injuries.
It's kind of crazy that they have played so few games together when you consider that Gasol was traded from Memphis to the Lakers in 2008. But it isn't nearly so far-fetched when you realize the trade happened on—that's right—Feb. 1.
Andrew Ungvari is a co-lead blogger for basketball website SirCharlesInCharge.com .
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