Pre-season question of the day: Can Andrew Bynum make it through the season without an injury?
The praise for Lakers center Andrew Bynum seems plentiful, but it always comes with a qualifier.
Bynum can land on the NBA All-Star team -- if he stays healthy. Bynum can become the NBA's best center -- if he stays healthy. Some argue Bynum can eventually become one of the Lakers' best centers -- if he stays healthy.
That's the frustration Lakers fans often feel with Bynum. They either are told or feel Bynum's potential is endless, as long as he avoids the injury bug. They imagine how even more unstoppable Bynum's 7-foot, 285-pound frame could become if he resembled Cal Ripken a bit. They wonder what could have been in Bynum's first five seasons had he stayed healthy, with some even believing the Lakers would've won the 2008 NBA Finals with the young center in the lineup.
The concerns will continue through training camp, beginning Sept. 25, because Bynum is expected to be limited by having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee for the second time in three years. Although the team expects him to be 100% once the regular season begins, timetables involving Bynum have often been unreliable. That means anxieties will remain, with most Lakers fans hoping for the best but nervously awaiting more bad news.
Earlier this summer, I wrote in detail about Bynum taking one step forward last season despite missing the final 13 games of the regular season because of a strained left Achilles' tendon and then hyper-extending his right knee during Game 6 of the Lakers' first-round series against Oklahoma City, causing him to played a limited role for most of the postseason. Bynum's goal to stay injury-free ultimately fell short, but the way he responded during the 2009-10 season shows he's managed to handle his injuries better and has learned to remain effective despite them.
He didn't sit out the 2010 postseason. He drained his knee twice during the NBA Finals, a procedure he had previously opposed because of his fear of needles. And even through his physical setbacks, Bynum's presence caused match-up problems, discouraged opponents from driving to the basket and provided another option for easy rebounds and putbacks, resulting in an average of 7.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 25 minutes during the NBA Finals against Boston.
But that doesn't address the question on whether Bynum can make it through the coming season without more setbacks. Perhaps his offseason work in Los Angeles and Vancouver, which emphasized rehabilitating his knee and improving his core strength, will prove to be a preventative measure against injuries. Perhaps his ability to remain effective, albeit limited, in last year's playoffs proves sheer will and determination will be enough. And perhaps the team's anticipation that Bynum will be fully healthy after a limited training camp will become a reality.
Though there's nothing behind his injuries or surgery to suggest more problems head, based on his history, I doubt Bynum will get through next season fully healthy. But don't hold it against him. Although Bynum describes himself as "injury prone," you can't blame players for getting hurt. You can blame them for how they respond to injuries. In years past, Bynum deserved criticism for wallowing in self-pity, failing to contribute in small ways when he was hurt, and allowing any setback to stunt his growth as a player when he missed 46 regular-season games in the 2007-08 season (because of a partially dislocated kneecap suffered against the Memphis Grizzlies) and was sidelined for 32 games in the 2008-2009 season (because of a right-knee injury).
Still, that doesn't change the cold reality that Bynum's health could significantly affect the Lakers' chances of three-peating. Some may point to the Lakers' 2010 Finals win over Boston as evidence that the team can absorb a Bynum injury once again. I disagree because, frankly, the Finals result could've gone either way. I don't put stock in Doc Rivers' contention that the Celtics would've taken the 2010 NBA title had Kendrick Perkins been healthy. But I do believe that the series remained unpredictable because it featured two competitive teams that managed to counter each other's strengths every single game. Should the Lakers match up with Miami or Boston in the NBA Finals, Bynum's presence would be needed so that the Lakers would have a clear size advantage.
Of course, some of that calls for Bynum remaining healthy, raising a preseason question Lakers fans would like to know about right away, yet are understandably anxious about the final answer.
-- Mark Medina
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Photos: Andrew Bynum in action against the Boston Celtics. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times