Lakers Report Cards: Andrew Bynum
In the midst of the All-Star afterparties, Blake Griffin's electrifying slam dunk performance and Kobe Bryant collecting his fourth All-Star MVP, Andrew Bynum's conversation with Phil Jackson during the break helped lay the groundwork for what became a career-building season for the 23-year-old center.
After missing the first 24 games of the season because of off-season surgery on his right knee, Bynum at the time lamented his role in the offensive system and his two-of-12 outing in the Lakers' most embarrassing regular-season loss to Cleveland. That's when Jackson implored him to take ownership of the Lakers' defensive scheme that emphasized funneling players into the lane so the frontline could disrupt their opponents' shots. Bynum laid out the perfect blueprint, averaging 11.2 points and a Western Conference leading 12.3 rebounds and 2.36 blocks per game after the All-Star break, disrupting passing lanes and significantly altering the shots he didn't block.
Of course, Bynum also provided that presence when he returned from off-season surgery and when he grinded his way through the 2010 NBA playoffs while nursing a lateral meniscus tear on his right knee. The difference this time around was Bynum's willingness to embrace this responsibility as his primary role and that he avoided a major injury throughout the rest of the season.
Certainly, there were some blips on his resume this season. His flagrant foul on Dallas guard J.J. Barea in Game 4 of the Lakers-Mavericks playoff series soured an otherwise impressive season and earned him a five-game suspension next season as well as a $25,000 fine for taking off his jersey. Although Bynum avoided major injury, he collided his knees twice late in the regular season, he avoided further damage because of the 18-inch brace he wears on his right knee. And even if Bynum's honest revelation that the team had "trust issues" after the Lakers' Game 2 loss to Dallas, many in the Lakers organization viewed that as finger pointing rather than displaying any heightened sense of leadership.
But Bynum earned his high grade because his 24-game absence easily could have resulted in a slow transition period for him coming back to full form. It may be debatable whether Bynum's decision to delay surgery was warranted. It also may be indisputable that his absence created a trickle effect on the Lakers' struggles, most notably on Pau Gasol. But it's also clear that long-term rehab finally paid off in providing Bynum the opportunity to show his true potential when he's healthy.
"I think I just went into the playoffs with the intent of playing good basketball and I put myself in the position to do so," said Bynum, who led the Lakers this postseason with 9.6 rebounds and scored a second-leading 14.4 points per game. "I can definitely grow on that."
Bynum on multiple occasions has pointed to his All-Star break talk with Jackson as the turning point for him this season, but there was also another one for him. This took place in Boston on Jan. 10, a week before the All-Star break, where presumptuous ESPN trade reports connecting him going to the Nuggets for Carmelo Anthony dominated the discussion. The Lakers have held a strong-held view that they wouldn't trade Bynum because Lakers executive Jim Buss strongly backs him and the organization values his size and youth. But Jackson had Bynum talk with sports psychologist George Mumford to ease his mind on all the outside speculation, help with meditation and refuse to hold anything back on the court.
That same night, Bynum posted 16 points on six of 10 shooting and nine rebounds in the Lakers' signature road win over Boston, wiping away any notion the Lakers would remotely consider trading him. The next step involved providing that presence, however, on a consistent basis. He explained how he could do that after the All-Star break. The team's 17-1 mark mostly pointed to his defensive resurgence. He grabbed double digit rebounds in 16 of the last 25 regular-season games, including doing so in March for eight consecutive games. And he suddenly felt emboldened by all the responsibility.
It's unclear where Bynum game goes from here. He wants to assume a larger responsibility in the offense, but Kobe Bryant immediately fired back saying, "he needs to fall in line" behind Bryant and Gasol. But regardless of how that dynamic shapes up, Bynum showed the full potential he has when he's healthy. The scary part: Bynum's only going to get better, assuming he avoids further injuries of course.
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Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum tries to power his way to a shot against Mavericks center Tyson Chandler in the first half of Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals at Staples Center. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / May 4, 2011