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American Ghouls

Person of Interest: Andrew Bynum

This center's legacy is still under construction

Do we think of him any differently this morning? Sure, it was one game. Sure, it was the Nuggets. And sure, some of the blocks didn’t really look like blocks. But by tying the postseason record for blocks in a single game, did Andrew Bynum improve his defensive reputation? An NBA player’s profile rests mostly on his play in the postseason, where seemingly small achievements can radiate out and define careers. This, of course, has very little to do with reality, but because the public doesn’t see a player as too much more than a list of reference points, a feat like blocking 10 shots in a game can take on bigger, arguably undeserved dimensions. The answer to the question, “Can Andrew Bynum play defense?,” will now always reference the triple-double against the Nuggets. It’s the latest update in a weird season that has seen Bynum develop into an All-Star-caliber player while having his character called into question. Before yesterday’s triple-double, if you asked most hoop fans to rattle off the first three phrases that came to their minds when they heard the name “Andrew Bynum,” the top answers would be: Kobe, Lakers, improving, Giant Tracy Morgan, and head case.

Here is a timeline of Andrew Bynum’s mishaps, starting at the end of last season, when he bashed J.J. Barea with his forearm and got thrown out of Phil Jackson’s last game as a coach.

July 19, 2011: BREAKING NEWS! At a grocery store in Playa Del Rey, Andrew Bynum parks his BMW 6 Series convertible in a handicapped spot.

December 28, 2011: EXCLUSIVE! Bynum gets pulled over twice in a week for traffic violations.

March 20, 2012: Bynum gets ejected during a loss against the Rockets for arguing with the refs. On the way to the locker room, he smiles and high-fives the Lakers bench and a few fans. After the game, an irritated coach Mike Brown says, “Nobody can put themselves in jeopardy.” Bynum, for his part, says, “I have no regrets.” And then, “It is what it is.”

March 27, 2012: Bynum shoots a 3-pointer against the Warriors and gets benched by Brown. During an interview after the game, Bynum says that he intends on taking more 3-pointers. In the subsequent days, it’s revealed that Bynum’s benching came at the tail end of a series of disruptive and disrespectful acts, including playing loud music in the Lakers locker room.

March 31, 2012: When asked about why he doesn’t participate in team huddles, Bynum says, “I’m resting … I’m getting my Zen on.”

There’s more, but none of it strays much from the image of Andrew Bynum as an immature, occasionally petulant, and sometimes unprofessional 24-year-old. But for the portion of the basketball-watching public who teach family and moral lessons through the spectacle of 10 millionaires stuffing a ball through a hoop with varying levels of motivation, the sin of indifference stings worse than missed shots, turnovers, or even outright violence. Bynum’s teammate Metta World Peace showed up out of shape this year, took his own shots at Brown, and has picked his competitiveness moments with the same fickleness of a dog choosing where to take a shit. And yet, because World Peace gets along with reporters, because he shows outward flashes of “fire,” and because fans tend to confuse anger and mad-dogging the camera with competitiveness, World Peace has mostly gotten a pass. Bynum, on the other hand, played in his first All-Star Game, shook off early trade rumors, and developed into the second-best center in the NBA. I don’t mean to create some false scale of logic where anyone who is less inflammatory than World Peace then becomes a rational person. Certainly, the public has a “soft bigotry of lowered expectations” relationship with World Peace and his standards of judgment shouldn’t reflect on anyone else. Rather, what I’m saying is that there’s a very easy way to always appear like a good teammate, a hard worker, and a competitor worthy of a multimillion-dollar contract — you engage with the media members who hang out in the locker room, you flare up from time to time on the court, you play Wojo-style “hustle defense” that mostly involves needlessly picking up your opponent before half court, you refuse to smile, and you speak fondly of the good ol’ days when NBA players slapped one another in the face with their gloves, drew dueling pistols, and went through a litany of yo-mama jokes. World Peace plays that part. Andrew Bynum does not.

This is what Bynum has done this season: He has played five more minutes per game than in any other season in his career. He is attempting 2.7 more shots than his previous career best. He is shooting 5.6 free throws a game, up nearly 1.5 attempts from his former career average. For the first time since 2008, he has topped 10 rebounds a game. When you look at his advanced stats, Bynum becomes even more impressive. He’s scoring 1.023 points per possession overall, which ranks sixth among players with more than 1,000 possessions. By this measure, only Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Love have been more efficient. He has been better in the post this season than Dwight Howard and although Howard should still be regarded as the better player, it’s not as far apart as most think. Howard has an almost seismic effect on a game, where he affects everything on both ends of the court, especially on defense. But Howard does not play with Kobe Bryant. Howard therefore plays a much more central role in his team’s offense. Bynum has to go through long stretches where he does not get the ball, especially in crunch time, when Kobe whips himself into Super Saiyan mode and tries to burn down the arena. Despite the huge jump from last season, Bynum still only ranks 79th in the league in usage rate. By that measure, Bynum is closer to Nikola Pekovic and B.J. Mullens than he is to Andrea Bargnani or Chris Kaman, the two centers who use the largest percentage of their team’s possessions. I don’t really see much value in comparing Bynum’s “clutch” stats with Kobe’s because there’s no real comparison to what Kobe does in Super Saiyan mode, but Bynum’s 80-plus percent shooting percentage at the end of close games cannot be ignored. He can reliably score in the last minute of a game and doesn’t need to be taken out because he can’t shoot free throws. This trait, more than whatever clutch metric, boosts his value. He can stay on the court and contribute without inciting a Hack-a-Shaq strategy.

If you look at Bynum’s efficiency stats, there’s not too much different between the 2011 Bynum and this year’s version. In 55 games last year, he scored 1.057 points per possession. This season, he’s at 1.023. So what’s changed? Well, first of all, his usage rate jumped from 16.3 in 2010-11 to 21.5 this year. Mike Brown’s system has also parked him more in the post. Last season, 43 percent of Bynun’s possessions came in the post. That number has gone up to 56 percent this season. Those stats all point to a player who has vastly improved, but when you’re talking about Andrew Bynum, the discussion should begin and end with his size and mobility. Nearly everyone over 6-foot-11 in the NBA is not listed at his correct height. Short of following around players with a tape measure and a step stool, it’s nearly impossible to gauge the exact size of big men, but anyone who has seen Bynum and Howard in person can attest that Bynum stands a full head taller than Dwight. Despite standing with something of a slouch — this, I believe, contributes to some of his “body language” problems — Bynum towers over pretty much every player in the league. I still remember going to a Summer League game in Long Beach in 2005. Bynum had just been drafted out of high school and nobody knew much about him, save what they could cull from his MySpace page, where, if memory serves, he professed an affinity for “Brazilian girls.” (Who doesn’t at 17? Or 37?) When Bynum walked into the gym in street clothes, the crowd gasped. Even at 17 years old, he was huge. That size and Bynum’s underrated coordination are why the Lakers have never seriously considered trading him. Bynum might not have Howard’s shoulders or his explosion, but he’s every bit the physical specimen. Nobody in the league has the same combination of size, strength, and dexterity. And although it’s taken him six full seasons in the league to even bump up against his massive potential, let’s remember that Bynum is 24 years old. Has anyone really seen any evidence that he won’t get better? Can you think of one player with Bynum’s skills who didn’t go on to multiple All-Star Games? As the Lakers offense increasingly goes through their big man, a healthy Bynum should turn into the most gifted scoring center since David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s not the athlete that those two were. He’ll never be on Dwight’s level defensively, but there’s a fair chance Bynum might end up being remembered as the best center of his generation.

Bynum already has two championship rings. Dwight has none. Yes, Bynum’s rings might not “count,” because he wasn’t the best or even the second best player on the team. But at the ends of careers, those sorts of distinctions tend to go away. And, if current conditions continue or if Dwight manages to get shipped to Brooklyn, it’s tough to see the best-case scenario of him and Deron dethroning Miami in the East. Dwight, at 26 years old, seems to have peaked as a player. This has very little to do with his age, but more with his inability to play in the post without generating a ton of contact. Dwight, despite stealing Shaq’s nickname, is not 7-foot-1 and 350 pounds. He has been remarkably durable so far in his career, but has there really been a player of his size (approximately 6-foot-9 without shoes on) who has been able to play his style of basketball late into a career? This wouldn’t be a problem if Dwight were starting to show signs of a midrange jumper or even a fluid, go-to post move that doesn’t involve powering through his opponents. Having watched him closely for eight years now, it’s hard to see a scenario where he could efficiently score 25 points per game. Bynum can, and as long as he stays healthy, he will. He will develop the midrange jumper — depending on whom you believe on the Lakers staff, he already has the shot, but Mike Brown strictly forbids him from taking it in a game. He might not get the same rebounding totals as Dwight, but there’s some indication that even that divide isn’t as wide as some would think. According to the on-court/off-court stats on 82games.com, Bynum swings the Lakers’ rebounding totals by +3.1 percent when he’s on the floor. Howard’s rate is +2.5 percent.

Scoring more, of course, doesn’t mean that Bynum will actually be a better player than Dwight, but the potential combination of more scoring, a better chance at championships, and the allure of playing for the Lakers should even out the debate in a few years, especially if Dwight’s back surgery and his media meltdowns continue. The public sentiment has already started to turn on Howard, especially in light of the recent rumors about yet another demand to be traded out of Orlando. Is it that crazy to think that in 10 years, we’ll think of Bynum as the more important player?

When compared to Dwight’s ongoing drama camp, Bynum’s troubles seem pretty mild and stem mostly from his refusal to put on a happy and/or “competitor” face for the media. Metta World Peace knocked off James Harden’s head and has mostly dogged it this season, but because he tells jokes to reporters and shows up from time to time on radio shows, he’s been given a pass by much of the Los Angeles media. When news broke last summer that Bynum had parked in a handicapped spot at a grocery store, the outrage burned on for days. This isn’t to excuse Bynum for one of life’s truly unforgivable sins, but I don’t really see much evidence that he isn’t committed to improving his game, both individually and within the team concept. Nearly every great big man has gone through a stretch in which he acts like an irreconcilable head case. Shaq, KG, Hakeem, Kareem, Dwight, Moses, and down the line. It’s just what comes with being 7 feet tall and the entitlement that comes with knowing that you are completely irreplaceable.

Howard’s problems all stem from caring too much about what the media and the fans think about him. Over the past five or so years, he’s transformed himself from a quiet church kid into an outsize, gregarious personality who does impressions and tells hacky jokes. He’s burned through as much public good will in a year as Brett Favre did in four offseasons. (Well, that might not be true. Yet.) Dwight’s public image over the past two years has felt a bit forced, a bit put on, as the new Superman tries to spread his brand into more households across the country. Bynum does none of that, and, as a result, his image suffers.

Given the choice between those two personalities, wouldn’t you rather take the guy who is improving and doesn’t pay much attention to what people are saying about him?

With the Laker brass fully behind his future with the team, Bynum has the unique opportunity to change the way the team is perceived from “Kobe and the Lakers” to “Kobe, Bynum, and the Lakers.” To see how he did in his first playoff game this season, I went to Staples Center and took some notes.

First Quarter

11:10 — Danilo Gallinari drives through Bynum and to the basket — this is a big area where Bynum needs to improve. An opponent should not be able to drive past him and lay in the ball when there’s no help behind him.

7:30 — Kenneth Faried is giving Gasol and Bynum all they can handle in the post. On a drive across the lane, he scores and draws a foul. On two possessions already, he’s tipped a rebound away from the Lakers big men. When you see him up close, it’s clear why he dropped in the draft — he doesn’t even come up to Gasol’s shoulders and doesn’t have the thickest frame, but he’s one of those guys who can spring up toward the basket before everyone else.

6:18 — Manimal! Straight to the basket while Bynum looks on. A fan behind media row yells at Bynum to wake up. It’s not too difficult to see why Lakers fans can get frustrated with their center. He does kind of slouch around out there. The Nuggets have three field goals so far, all on drives straight to the basket. More importantly, the Nuggets are running in there with full confidence, which indicates that they don’t really respect Bynum’s ability to protect the rim.

5:51 — The great question of the day, “Is Bynum taller than JaVale McGee?,” is about to be answered. And it’s a yes!

5:30 — Bynum seems to be making an in-game adjustment. Instead of jumping out to challenge the Nuggets who are driving into the lane, Bynum parks himself underneath the basket and lets the opponent come to him.

2:40 — With Al Harrington barreling straight at him, Bynum goes up and blocks the shot with two hands. The adjustment has paid off.

Bynum played all 12 minutes of the first quarter. He took no shots, grabbed five rebounds, and blocked three shots. Once he made his adjustment and stopped flying out of the paint, the Nuggets seemed more hesitant to go in there.

Second Quarter

10:42 — Bynum starts the quarter on the bench, so I’d like to take this opportunity to talk a bit more about the Manimal, who starts off the quarter with a vicious block and a strong drive to the basket. He’s a bit small, but as long as he doesn’t get hurt, he’s going to be an NBA starter for a long time. This feels like the right time to run back our only real meme on Grantland: the Kenneth Faried emcee highlight video. What up, BC 2-TONE!

6:30 — Timofey Mozgov is wearing all-turquoise high tops. They look like Bishop Don Magic Juan’s aqua socks.

4:20 — Bynum gets his first basket on a tip when Mozgov gets caught Kobe watching. Denver has a lot of size to throw at Bynum, and the combination of Koufos, Mozgov, and McGee has certainly bothered him so far.

Bynum finished the first half with six points, nine rebounds. Save a dunk that occurred when McGee forgot who he was guarding (I’m serious), all of Bynum’s offense came off offensive rebounds. The Lakers have been able to control the tempo of the game, though, and it’s mostly because the Nuggets can’t get to the rim anymore.

Third Quarter

6:20 — According to NBA.com’s stat report, Bynum has blocked six shots. This is pretty generous. The real stat line? Bynum has given up six baskets at the rim and blocked three shots that came straight at him. I’m sure a lot of people will look at the box score tomorrow morning and think, “At least Bynum got involved defensively.” He did block a lot of shots, but he gave up his fair share as well.

2:50 — After goaltending a Ramon Sessions layup, McGee hits himself in the junk. As in, he swings his arm through the goaltend and his wrist ends up smashing into his nuts. As McGee grimaces and clutches at himself, everyone laughs.

1:00 — Bynum scores after corralling a blocked shot. The Lakers are really not running any plays for him. With a 16-point lead, the team seems content to Kobe watch.

Fourth Quarter

6:12 — Bynum blocks his ninth shot, officially. Instead of going across the lane as they did at the start of the game, Corey Brewer and Faried have been going straight into Bynum.

3:01 — Triple-double! Bynum blocks his 10th shot. The earlier adjustment has really paid off. Not sure why the Nuggets didn’t start shooting jumpers or runners in the lane, but they’re going to have to do something for Game 2.

Of all the ways Bynum could have started his 2012 playoff campaign, this was perhaps the most unexpected. The Nuggets came out attacking the basket with Ty Lawson and Gallo, but once Bynum started sending those shots back, Denver’s offense slowed down. Arron Afflalo began to dribble a bit too much around the top of the key, Al Harrington became too involved, and the Nuggets couldn’t reliably push the ball up the court. Bynum was the most dominant player in the game — every time the Nuggets looked like they were going to go on a run, Bynum would block a shot and slow down Denver’s attack.

The reality is that the quality of Bynum’s defense still fluctuates wildly. Even within this game, there were moments, especially early in the first quarter, when he looked lost and disinterested. But that’s mostly irrelevant, especially during a playoff run that could potentially define and steer the rest of his career. If Bynum can churn out a couple more of these memorable performances, he might become known as the league’s best center a lot quicker than anyone expected.

Filed Under: Andrew Bynum, Los Angeles Lakers, People, Teams

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