In the aftermath of the Lakers’ latest capitulation to the Celtics in the NBA Finals, many within the Los Angeles sports community have suggested that having Andrew Bynum in uniform would have reversed the outcome of the series.
Of course, many of these same “experts” boldly predicted a Lakers' sweep or (at the very least) a 4-1 series victory, even without Bynum in the lineup. Well, the latest thing we’re hearing from this vocal crowd is just how great the Lakers will be next season with Bynum returning from knee surgery.
To such fans, a healthy Bynum virtually guarantees a return to the NBA Finals, where the Lakers will undoubtedly sweep or (at the very least) crush by a 4-1 margin whatever team emerges from the “weak” Eastern Conference.
Is Bynum really that good? Will he be able to return from knee surgery (performed about a month ago), regain his NBA fitness, and overcome the psychological scars associated with his injury to post the kind of numbers that his eager fans expect of him?
Assessing just how good Bynum is presents difficulties because he has only played one full season, his second in the NBA. In 2006-'07, as the Lakers’ starting center (53 of 82 games), Bynum averaged 7.8 points per game on 56 percent field goal shooting, while grabbing 5.9 rebounds per game.
For purposes of comparison, let’s look at the numbers for Leon Powe who, at times, played as the Boston Celtics’ third string center behind Kendrick Perkins and PJ Brown (and even Brian Scalabrine) this past season, his second in the NBA.
Like Bynum, Powe is a young and talented player, whose second year numbers have been surprisingly similar. Powe scored 7.9 points per game on 57 percent field goal shooting, while grabbing 4.1 rebounds per game in 2007-'08.
Bynum obviously had the edge in terms of rebounding. But when you consider he played 50 percent more minutes than Powe (22 versus 14.5), that rebounding margin doesn’t look quite so impressive. Especially when you consider that Bynum also enjoys a four inch height advantage.
What does this tell us? During his only full season in the NBA, the Lakers' starting center put up numbers that were comparable to those put up by a third string center/power forward for the Boston Celtics who happened to play seven fewer minutes per game.
Of course, before his season-ending injury in January, Bynum began to put up numbers that started to justify the hype surrounding him, nearly doubling the scoring and rebounding averages he posted during the 2006-'07 season. More importantly, Bynum began to establish himself as a better interior defender by blocking roughly two shots per game.
According to Bryant, that interior defense would have made the difference in the championship series: “He gives us a presence in the middle that we didn't have in the Finals. He's a shot-blocker. So now guys coming down the middle, Pierce laying the ball in, he's got to think about that now and shoot floaters because Bynum is naturally a shot-blocker.”
This argument works on one level, but what it overlooks is the fact that Gasol (also nearly two blocks per game) and Odom were among the top 20 shot blockers in the NBA this past season. Why weren’t either of them able to stop Pierce?
Would Bynum, a third year player, have been able to do what two of his shot-blocking veteran teammates could not? Maybe, but I doubt it. If you look at Bynum’s performance in the two games he played against the Celtics in the regular season, then you’d doubt it too.
Moreover, I question the quickness, ball-control, and overall effectiveness of a projected starting lineup next season that includes Bynum (seven footer), Gasol (seven footer), and Odom (very close seven footer). Having these guys on the floor at the same time creates serious match-up problems for Phil Jackson against quicker teams.
In the Finals this year, everyone saw how Doc Rivers’ decision to go with a smaller, faster, three point shooting player rotation turned the proverbial tide in the Celtics’ favor during their historic 24 point come from behind upset of the Lakers in Game Four.
Please don’t get me wrong. I agree that Bynum is a good player with developing skills, but returning from knee surgery is not as simple as some would like to believe.
As Phil Jackson publicly claimed after the surgery, Bynum’s knee will be 100 percent physically fit by the start of next season. What Jackson failed to note, however, is that knee injuries leave psychological damage that persists months after the physical healing process has completed.
I think this young man will have enough trouble dealing with such concerns, without the added pressure of being expected to play consistently at a level he has rarely achieved in his short NBA career.
Some Lakers fans love to claim that Bryant is the next Jordan. Please, for the sake of this young man, don’t expect Bynum to be the next O’Neal or Jabbar. As with efforts to compare Bryant to Jordan, he’s got a LONG way to go before such comparisons can and should be drawn.