Poll: How do you feel about limited minutes for Andrew Bynum this season?
It would show that he can quickly recover from an injury and help silence the criticism surrounding his decision to delay off-season surgery until after the World Cup. And a speedy recuperation would surely improve his chances to secure his first-ever All-Star berth.
After the Lakers' practice Tuesday in Barcelona, Coach Phil Jackson gave him another reason to get better soon.
"We're hopeful that this is the time he's able to start playing consistently through a season," Jackson told The Times' Mike Bresnahan. "If not, we're going to have to look at Andrew as a short-minute guy, somebody like Yao Ming, who's going to be limited in the amount of minutes he plays."
Yao has suffered numerous bone-related injuries and missed significant chunks of the last five seasons. After he played in at least 80 games his first three seasons, he dipped to 57 games in 2005-06, fell to 48 in 2006-07, rose slightly to 55 in 2007-08, increased to 77 in 2008-09 and then missed the season altogether in the 2009-10 season. Lakers fans may recall Houston pushing L.A. to seven games in the 2009 semifinals despite Yao suffering a season-ending hairline fracture in his left foot in Game 3.
Lakers fans are also well aware of Bynum's deep medical history: He had surgery on a dislocated left kneecap in 2008, suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in the right knee in 2009, strained his left Achilles' tendon in 2010 and, weeks later, had torn cartilage in the right knee that limited him in the postseason and resulted in his second knee surgery in three seasons.
With Bynum's controversial decision to delay his surgery so he could go to the World Cup and his expectation that he won't return until December, any news regarding Bynum often comes with increased frustration and further doubt that he's worth the investment. Jackson's latest assessment seems practical, but it also could be a motivational message.
Jackson stood up for Bynum in the immediate aftermath of his decision to delay surgery and news of his longer-than-expected recovery, saying the team thought it was OK that Bynum attended the World Cup and pointing out that his original surgery date (July 18) was delayed 10 days because Bynum's personal doctor, David Altchek, didn't have an appointment available.
Since then, statements from Jackson and from Bynum have been at times contradictory. Bynum initially said he'd return toward the last week of November but recently changed his timetable to December. Meanwhile, Jackson said he expected Bynum to return within two to three weeks after the regular seasons started Oct. 26 against Houston. Bynum expressed confidence that the off-season procedure would finally take care of any long-term concerns involving his knee. Yet Jackson seems wary.
"If his knee doesn't hold up after having this process, then we'll have to think about what kind of minutes he can play in a career," Jackson told Bresnahan. "This would be a [fourth] consecutive year that things didn't go well. We're concerned. That's why we're giving this extra time, or the doctors asked for extra time for this to heal, so when this heals, his career can go forward instead of having these stops in the middle of the season."
Jackson considering limiting Bynum's minutes isn't entirely new. When asked at his preseason news conference whether he'd ever consider playing Bynum in a limited capacity, Jackson said he'd probably follow that approach once Bynum returned to the lineup and caught up on his conditioning. Bynum also played that role during the 2010 playoffs and actually helped the team in a utility role. But Jackson's latest remarks frame the issue in a new way, as a long-term strategy for Bynum's career.
As much as I've said Bynum would put up a good effort despite any physical setbacks this season, I'm thinking having him play a utility role for the rest of his career wouldn't sit well with Lakers fans. And it really would be a waste of the team's resources. There's no question it would diminish his standing with the Lakers.
Of course, at this point, it's all hypothetical. But Jackson's worry is apparent. Just before Bynum strained his left Achilles' tendon, the coach predicted Bynum would land on the NBA All-Star team, assuming he stayed healthy and said he believed Bynum had overcome the psychological hurdle in worrying about becoming injury-prone. He had nothing but praise for Bynum during the 2010 post-season run, when he won great respect in the locker room. Jackson staunchly defended him just as training camp opened. And now this.
Jackson's statements might just end up being a great motivating tactic for Bynum. Or they might be spelling out his future.
-- Mark Medina
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Photos, from top: Lakers center Andrew Bynum dunks over Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce in Game 1 of the 2010 NBA Finals. Bynum is still recovering from off-season knee surgery and will not be ready to play when the Lakers open the season Oct. 26 against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center and receive their championship rings. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times