With all due respect to Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum is the most skilled pure center in the NBA. It’s now time for him to take that next step.
If the Lakers are going to complete the fourth three-peat of Phil Jackson’s career, and the second of Kobe Bryant’s, Andrew Bynum must play a major role.
In five professional seasons, Bynum, who doesn’t turn 23 years old until October 27, has matured physically and, with the help of a legend, refined his low-post game.
Over the past three seasons, Bynum’s shown himself to be physically gifted, incredibly skilled, and occasionally dominant. He’s come a long way since Kobe Bryant publicly lamented the franchise’s reluctance to trade him in exchange for Jason Kidd.
He’s put in the work and developed his game. What more do the Lakers need from Andrew Bynum to complete the three-peat?
First and foremost, he must stay on the floor. Over the past three years, injuries have robbed him of 96 regular season games, cost him the entire 2008 postseason, and limited him to less than 18 minutes per game in the Lakers’ 2009 title run.
With a healthy Andrew Bynum, the Lakers will be able to field the best big lineup in recent memory.
Think about this: the 2010-11 Lakers will trot out a roster consisting of Kobe Bryant (6’6”), Pau Gasol (7’0"), Bynum (7’0"), Lamar Odom (6’10”), Ron Artest (6’7”), Matt Barnes (6’7”), and Shannon Brown (6’4”, which is pretty good for a PG). And we’re not even taking into account Luke Walton (6’8”), Sasha Vajucic (6’7”—does that sound about three inches too high to anyone else?), or potential impact second-rounders Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter (6’9” each).
When healthy, Bynum’s a double-double machine and a constant threat to put up 25-15. If he suits up in 75 or more games in 2010-11, there’s no reason to think that he can't develop into a consistent 20-10 guy and a 35 minute-a-night inside threat. If this happens, there’s not a team in the NBA that can beat the Lakers four times in seven games.
Not only does Bynum add to the Lakers’ length and athleticism on defense but his presence in the paint negates the Lakers’ lack of speed and quickness at the point. Both Derek Fisher (36 years old) and the newly acquired Steve Blake are heady, mature lead guards that consistently hit shots from the perimeter, but neither possesses the speed and athleticism needed to stop the league’s top young point guards (Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, and so on).
With Bynum patrolling the paint, the defensive shortcomings of Fisher and Blake become far less of a liability for the Lakers. Any point guard that’s able to get past Fisher and Blake (this could be a considerable number) still has plenty of work to do in dealing with Bynum’s length, agility, and shot-blocking.
At the other end, Bynum’s offense commands significant attention, which lightens Pau Gasol’s workload inside and eases Bryant’s burden. Bryant is entering his 15th season. It’s safe to assume he’d appreciate the added help.
However, thanks to the Lakers’ incredible stockpile of talent and depth, Bynum doesn’t need to become an offensive force. Over the past three seasons, this team has demonstrated the ability to reach the pinnacle of the league with Bynum contributing between 13.1 and 15 ppg in the regular season and no more than 8.6 ppg in the postseason.
This isn’t likely to change in 2010-11. With Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol still a lock for roughly 45 ppg, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, and the newly acquired Matt Barnes probably good for 10-14 ppg each, and the three-headed PG spot (Derek Fisher, Steve Blake, and Shannon Brown) likely to produce around 15 ppg, points will not be short supply in Lakerland.
While Bynum’s development into an elite scorer would all but guarantee the Lakers another three-peat, there are four areas in which a healthy Andrew Bynum makes an irreplaceable contribution.
When he’s on the floor, Bynum’s a top-flight rebounder. It’s just that simple. At a long 7'0" and 285 lbs, Bynum’s one of the most physically imposing players in the NBA, though this is occasionally overlooked thanks to his seemingly lanky frame.
He’s averaged 9.9 rebounds per 36 minutes in each of the past three seasons but has topped 8.3 rpg just once in his career. This was when he averaged 10.2 rpg in 2007-08, before a knee injury ended his season after 35 games. Provided he’s able to stay healthy (sensing a trend here?), Bynum is a lock to average 10+ rpg, with two or three per night coming at the offensive end.
In addition to his abundance of physical gifts, Bynum maximizes his impact on the glass thanks to excellent technique. It would be easy for Bynum to rely solely on height and length to get rebounds, but he doesn’t neglect the importance of footwork and positioning particularly on the offensive glass.
Finally, Andrew Bynum jumps. I realize this sounds strange, but it’s maddening to watch NBA big men try to grab a rebound by simply reaching up without leaving the floor. Worse yet, is the sight of a big man with good rebounding position missing out on a board because he felt that superior position alone entitled him to the ball.
Nope. Bynum does all of it. He’s got incredibly long arms. He’s extremely tall to begin with. He understands positioning. And he jumps.
Offensive (non-scoring) Skill Set
This is where Bynum’s well-publicized work with Laker legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is most evident. Already blessed with exceptionally soft hands, Bynum’s developed a fantastic ability to create a big target for passers. Additionally, he does a fantastic job of “playing big” by never hesitating to climb the ladder—which, in his case, goes all the way to the penthouse—to get the ball, and keeps the ball above his shoulders once he’s got it.
Wanna see more of Kareem’s impact on Bynum’s game? Check out his feet. As physically gifted as he was, outstanding footwork was the hallmark of Kareem’s dominant offensive game. Now, more than two decades after his retirement, Kareem has taught Andrew Bynum how to to move his feet to get the most out of his offensive talent.
And then there’s his exceptional passing ability. Along with the footwork, this is the area in which Kareem’s influence on Bynum’s game is most visible.
Few, if any, centers in NBA history have passed the balls as well as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Today, few NBA seven footers pass the ball as well as Bynum, who’s shown amazing touch on passes to cutters (both on the baseline and in the lane) and an ability to look over—and pass accurately out of—double teams.
High Basketball IQ
Not only does Andrew Bynum have all of the physical tools needed to excel in the NBA, he simply understands how to the play the game.
The term “basketball IQ” isn’t easy to define, but we can reasonably say that “strategic use of one’s physical tools” is a decent jumping off point.
Understanding rebounding position and defensive rotation. Creating a “big target” for a passer. Keeping the ball high when it’s in his hands. Excellent footwork. An outstanding eye for passing lanes and great finesse on passes.
Sure, Bynum’s occasionally foul prone, but rarely does he commit a blatantly dumb foul. This is more a function of him missing 1.2 of the past three regular seasons. The foul trouble that tends to find Andrew Bynum tends to stem from aggressive play and not repeatedly falling prey to the same “rookie-style mistakes” for a certain Sunshine State superhero.
More on this shortly.
Quality Depth in the Middle
This one’s pretty straightforward. For all of their size and length, the Lakers are actually rather thin at the taller end of the spectrum. This is especially the case at the center position.
Heading into 2010-11, the Lakers boast four players that measure 6’10” or taller—Bynum, Gasol, Odom, and 37-year-old Theo Ratliff. Of that quartet, only two, Gasol and Bynum, are seven footers; only Bynum and Ratliff are true centers, and Odom is more of a perimeter player than a traditional big man.
In a pinch, Pau Gasol (7’0", 250 lbs) is a more than capable fill-in, but this comes with a major drawback. While Gasol is more than capable of filing a void in the middle in the short-term, should he be forced to log major minutes at center for an extended period of time, the Lakers’ roster loses a significant chunk of its much-vaunted depth.
For the Lakers to get the most out of their talent-laden squad, Andrew Bynum will need to provide valuable minutes in the middle (there’s that pesky “staying healthy” thing again!). These minutes will prove valuable almost as much for their quantity as they will for their quality.
Heading into the season, there’s not a team in the Western Conference with a combination of talent, depth, and size that can rival that of the Lakers. Kevin Durant's Thunder played the Lakers very tough in 2010, have gotten quite a bit of buzz this summer, and have the look of a budding contender. With that said, I’m going to wait until they beat someone in a playoff series before picking them to dethrone the champs. Barring any additional setbacks, another frustrating season along the lines of Bynum’s last three (50 games played, 14.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg) is unlikely to prevent the Lakers from racking up 55-60 regular season wins and making a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.
However, assuming the Lakers are able to successfully negotiate the regular season and the Western Conference playoffs, there’s a trio of Eastern Conference contenders against whom Andrew Bynum will play a pivotal role.
Despite their incredible wealth of talent on the wings, the Miami Heat cannot match up inside with a full-strength Lakers team. Andrew Bynum is the main reason why.
Centers currently on the Heat’s roster: Joel Anthony (just 6’9” and skilled enough to be a journeyman backup, nothing more); Juwan Howard (also just 6’9”, entering his 17th season, approaching his 38th birthday and was never particularly athletic to being with); Zydrunas Ilgauskas (7’3”, 35 years old, moves at a glacial pace and is far more comfortable on the perimeter than in the paint); Jamaal Magloire (at 6’11”, 255 lbs, he’s got the body, but has little athleticism and commands no defensive attention); and Dexter Pittman (32nd pick in the draft; 6’10”, 290 lbs and averaged 10-5 as a senior at Texas. Weighed nearly 400 lbs as a high school senior—not really the athletic type.).
Yeah, there’s a lot of them, but not a single member of that crew has a prayer of guarding Andrew Bynum one-on-one. And at the other end, not one of these guys requires a passing thought as an offensive threat.
Against the Miami Heat, Andrew Bynum is either an automatic double-team (by LBJ, Wade, or Bosh since his height negates a PG’s double) or a lock for 30-15 and the Finals MVP.
Despite a lot of familiar names, there’s not an elite big man on the Celtics' roster. However, as is the case with the Heat, there’s a few of them. Unfortunately for last season’s runners-up, the subpar corps at the center spot in Miami may actually be stronger that its counterpart in Boston.
The Celtics currently have just three true centers (plus Big Baby and KG) on the roster: Kendrick Perkins (6’10”, 280 lbs, tough-as-nails, will play Bynum tough, though not skilled offensively but commands lot of attention on the offensive glass); Jermaine O’Neal (6’11”, 255 lbs and entering his 15th season although a shell of his former self and little more than a warm body for the past three years); and Shaquille O’Neal (at roughly 350 lbs is still a load, but can no longer finish and has no speed, quickness, or jumping ability left).
So there you have it. Another flawed crew of big men from an Eastern contender, either unskilled (Perk) or in severe decline (the O’Neals). Kendrick Perkins will battle with everything he’s got and Shaq still exacts a toll by simply leaning on opponents, but there’s not a Boston big man that can play Bynum straight up.
As was the case with the Heat, Andrew Bynum is either an automatic double-team (either by KG or Big Baby, which would leave Gasol open, or by Rondo, who’s length would be an asset) or a lock for 30-15 and the Finals MVP.
Unlike the Heat and the Celtics, the Orlando Magic have a legitimate big man that can match Bynum, and another (Marcin Gortat) that will make him work at both ends.
Dwight Howard is a physical freak and a monster on the boards. In terms of raw (key word) ability, his ceiling is as high as all but a select few big men in the NBA history. He’s 6’11”, 265 lbs, can run like a wing player and possesses a near 40-inch vertical leap. He’s the league’s best rebounder, defender, and shotblocker. There’s literally nothing on a basketball court that Dwight Howard’s physically incapable of doing.
The problem? Superman’s greatest assets—his otherworldly physique and athleticism—may also be his Kryptonite.
Remember that conversation we had about basketball IQ?
As physically imposing and athletic as Andrew Bynum is, Dwight Howard trumps him on both fronts.
However, for all of his physical gifts, Dwight Howard’s game lacks a certain “headiness” and veteran savvy that Andrew Bynum exhibits in his. Howard’s failed to develop a go-to offensive move. He’s a liability at the free throw line (60 percent career vs. 69.2 percent for Bynum). He does a poor job of protecting the ball (3 plus turnovers/game each of the past four years). His offensive game lacks any semblance of finesse, either in terms of touch around the basket or footwork in the post.
And then there are the fouls.
Dwight Howard has never committed fewer than 232 fouls in an NBA season. In 2009-10, he committed a league-leading (and career-high) 287 personal fouls. In the 2010 postseason, Howard committed five or six fouls in five of Orlando’s first six games, and committed fewer than four fouls twice in the remainder of the playoffs.
Those numbers are telling, but they don't tell the whole story. Howard get his fouls early in games. He gets them in bunches. He frequently fails to get his money’s worth (offensive fouls, over-the-back calls, etc.), He fails to grasp the idea that when he’s already in foul trouble, conceding the occasional layup or rebound is not as steep a price as having to take a seat for large chunks of time.
Should the Lakers meet the Magic in the 2011 Finals, Howard will have tougher time getting quality looks on offense. Meanwhile, he’ll have to spend a majority of his defensive possessions guarding either Bynum or Gasol—owners of two of the most refined post games in the league today.
So, do the Lakers’ plans for a three-peat hinge on Andrew Bynum’s ability to come up big?
Only at the most important part of the journey.