Andrew Bynum, playing time, and the fourth quarter
With details on Saturday's scrimmage fairly vague (everything seemed to go well in a spirited day's work), the bigger, or at least more interesting, topic of conversation Monday afternoon in El Segundo was Andrew Bynum. Just as it was heading into last season, a healthy and productive Bynum could be the most profound point of improvement for this year's team, I think than the addition of Ron Artest. That the Lakers won it all last season without Bynum contributing fully then drives home the idea of just how good they can be.
It also emphasizes the incredible amount of talent, particularly frontcourt talent, the Lakers have at their disposal. For most teams, the notion that Bynum wouldn't play deep in the fourth quarter would be absurd. Most teams, though, don't have Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom at their disposal. Still, Bynum made it clear he wants some crunch time burn. "I expect to be out there at the end of the game. I expect to earn that. I expect to be able to block shots and put the ball into the basket at the end of games," he said.
Kudos for the ambition, and the understanding it needs to be earned. But even if he plays well, Bynum is still more likely to experience more final buzzers as an observer rather than a participant, Phil Jackson said:
"I think (getting late game PT is) not the important thing for this team right now.. There are times when I think his defense is going to come into play, where it's going to be important to have that aspect, and rebounding aspect, on the floor. But to sacrifice a Pau or Lamar in that stead does change up really the strength of our team."
It's also a question of matchups, particularly on the defensive end, and the success the squad had last year:
"Our game (meaning the NBA) has evolved into a lot of screen and rolls, and penetration with three point shots off of that screen roll, and our most mobile and agile team is that group. I've gone through two playoffs (with them), and they know how to cover and recover for themselves. That's an experience that once a team has those kind of minutes, and they're kind of experienced together, they react in a non-verbal way in conjunction with each other that makes it a difficult thing for other players to step in and simulate that, although they can. There are replacement parts, and we want to see that (ability) happen. There will be opportunities. There will be injuries in the course of the year, and foul trouble, and that kind of situation, so guys will get there (opportunities), but when you have a team that's won a championship and has an understanding of how to stretch situations in ballgames, you just want to can that in hope that you can re-create that as you go through the year."
Bottom line, Bynum is going to have to show some patience and maturity. ""And then," Jackson noted, "fulfill the opportunity when it comes."
When Odom was moved to the bench before last season, the question of late game rotations became a major point of interest, one made essentially moot by Bynum's injury. When Bynum returned, the rotation was established and Bynum wasn't playing well enough to merit late minutes anyway. This year, if he's as good as he wants to be- Bynum again reiterated Monday a desire to make the All Star team- this sort of thing will require a more delicate coaching hand. Nothing PJ can't handle, and I'm sure he'd rather have the luxury of having more quality players than available spots on the floor to play them. I know I would.
As for the "big" lineup- Bynum, Gasol, Odom, Ron Artest, Kobe Bryant- PJ's tone today seems to reinforce what I've felt since Jackson floated the notion before the season began, namely that a) I'll believe it when I see it, and b) if we do see it, the arrangement will be more a novelty than regular thing. (For the record, I'd still like to see them try it.) And while I believe Jackson when he says there will be opportunities for Bynum (and that circumstances- read injuries or foul trouble- can quickly change the context of things) requiring the young center to earn that time rather than dropping him in there is the right move. Gasol is an elite and versatile big, while Odom's ability to guard a variety of positions makes it tough for the opposition to force switches defensively.
Most importantly, the Lakers are coming off a title and consecutive Finals appearances, meaning it is, by definition, a winning formula. I expect Bynum to continue expressing the desire to play late. All players should want to be on the floor when the stakes are highest. Hopefully he makes it tough on Jackson to sit him. But how he handles what appears likely to be some level of disappointment along the way will be a good indication of his maturity.
*With this being the first year of his new deal, Bynum was asked if he felt more pressure to perform. Don't freak out because he said "no." There's a reason. "I have no pressure now, other than to go out there now and give my effort. Put my effort forth and good things will happen. I don't have anything to worry about but to come in and play basketball." Meaning there aren't other distractions or worries, like the state of his contract extension. What any of this actually means depends a great deal on his work habits. For that, we'll just have to wait and see.
*Regarding the Kareem thing, Bynum said he's not sure what all the fuss is about, or at the very least, why this has become such a big story. "I have no idea where it's coming from. We haven't even got into the season yet. I only work with him during the season, so they'd have to be talking about offseason work, but I wasn't even here. I was overseas, and when I came back, I was in Atlanta working out," he said. Certainly PR director John Black wasn't making things up when he said last week that KAJ's role would be "generally lessened," but I was left with the impression in our (albeit short) conversation that Bynum really didn't know much about it. Personally, I'm not so concerned about from whom Bynum takes his instruction, just that he feels a continuing need to learn. Bynum noted that he's still coming in early every day to get extra work, and doesn't consider himself a finished product by any stretch.
*He'll only be wearing the brace on his right knee, the one he keeps reminding people that he'll need to wear forever,unwittingly freaking out many fans each time he says it.
*The offseason leg work, Bynum says, has helped equalize his leg strength. Entering last season, Bynum says he was much more right-leg dominant.
*UPDATE: Forgot to mention this nugget. Asked what he's bought since the new contract kicked in, Bynum shrugged. Nothing. "I'm saving, because I think something's coming in about a year. After next year. I'm being very smart." Must be nice to have the Players Association president on the squad, but it doesn't bode well for labor peace over the next year or so.