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Yao Ming retirement: Should Andrew Bynum be wary of same fate?

July 20, 2011 |  3:27 pm

Yao Ming

The praise always comes with a qualifier.

Andrew Bynum can soon become one of the NBA's dominant centers if he stays healthy. Bynum can make the All-Star team if he stays healthy. And Bynum will become a key part of the Lakers' franchise if he stays healthy.

The aforementioned phrase has tested the patience of Laker fans and led to many divisions on whether Bynum was truly worth the wait injury after injury. Finally Bynum turned a corner in the 2011 NBA playoffs where he proved to be one of the team's more consistent players and managed to go all season without suffering a major injury. 

There are several lessons Bynum could take if he watched Yao Ming announce his retirement Wednesday in China after an accomplished nine-year career ended because of recurring injuries. Should Bynum be wary of a similar fate? Will Bynum's career be cut short because of continuous trips to the trainer's room to treat his wobbly knees? Will his legacy be tainted like Yao's with wondering what Bynum could've accomplished had he stayed healthy? And will Bynum eventually need to adopt a plan the Rockets prescribed for Yao in which he wouldn't play more than 24 minutes per game? 

It's insensitive and distasteful to make it sound like we're putting betting wagers on Bynum's health. But I'm raising these questions simply because Yao's case study may provide another reminder of how fragile Bynum's career is. It's one of the many reasons why I argued the Lakers shouldn't be pinning Bynum as the future of their franchise because it's currently unclear what Bynum's injury-free season in the 2010-2011 actually means. The surgery and long-term rehab Bynum had on his right knee that caused him to miss the first 24 games of the regular-season ensured a fully healthy knee the rest of the season, but does that mean the injury bug escaped him or is this simply a transitional period before something bad happens again?

Andrew Bynum

The Lakers have already made different moves given that reality.

They required him to wear a knee brace, which came in handy last season when he bumped knees multiple times with teammates or opponents. Bynum was the first to say how wearing the black 18-inch contraption made of metal, padding and Velcro prevented something worse from happening.

The Lakers devised a defensive system last year that emphasized Bynum staying closer to the basket to prevent opposing players from funneling into the lane and to minimize his movement. With Lakers assistant coach Chuck Person saying recently that the Lakers will have a similar defensive system, Bynum still won't have to worry about moving too much.

And more importantly, Lakers guard Derek Fisher argued during the postseason that the lynchpin to Bynum's success pointed to him becoming less consumed with the possibility that he might get hurt again. He played with full aggression. He eventually embraced Phil Jackson's meditation philosophies the past two seasons, and he read positive-thinking books, such as "The New Psycho-Cybernetics."

But there are other ways the Lakers can make sure they're better equipped to absorb Bynum possibly getting hurt again.

As I've mentioned before, the Lakers' front office, namely Jim Buss, shouldn't view Bynum as the team's franchise player because of the unpredictable nature of his injuries and because it's relatively common for big men to go through them. Just ask Shaquille O'Neal and Yao. As much as the Lakers have plenty of front-line depth, one of their weaknesses last year pointed to the team lacking any definitive backup to Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, all players who ate up plenty of minutes. Bynum's interest in expanding his offensive game by taking boxing lessons and working on his post moves should improve his agility and make it easier for him to broaden his game. But remaining a back-to-the basket center who thrives on getting putbacks and high-percentage shots would ensure his longevity. And even if Bynum currently remains healthy, it wouldn't hurt if Brown made sure he limited Bynum's minutes in the mid-20s instead of the high-30s.

It may not be the conversation the Lakers or Bynum want to have right now. But they only have to look at Yao's early retirement and Bynum's extensive injury history to recognize it can prevent future problems and ensure that Bynum reaches his full potential.

-- Mark Medina

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Photo: Rockets center Yao Ming goes to the floor in pain after bumping knees with a driving Kobe Bryant. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / May 4, 2009

Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum is treated by trainer Gary Vitti as teammates gather after he stepped on the foot of New Orleans power forward Carl Landry and fell to the floor holding his right knee last season. Bynum needed a couple of minutes to recover but stayed in the game. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / April 22, 2011