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2009 NBA Playoffs – Andrew Bynum

2009 April 27

dEDGE Post Scriptum

Standing a towering 7’0″ and weighing in at 285 lbs., the 21-year old from Plainsboro, New Jersey has some extremely large footsteps to follow. Andrew Bynum was the 10th overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft, selected out of St. Joseph High School by the Los Angeles Lakers. Pushed into the limelight on a Lakers squad coming off a season in which they failed to make the playoffs, the new look Lakers featuring Kobe Bryant had big expectations for their young center. But even on draft day, the Lakers front office was trying to downplay the unwarranted hype by saying that they didn’t expect Bynum to contribute until 2-3 years down the road. Why in heaven’s sake would Mitch Kupchak ever draft a player that was a long term project, when the Lakers needed help right away? And true to form, Bynum proved that he had neither the tools or the work ethic required in the NBA. Here was an 18-year old kid, thrust into the hectic scene of Los Angeles, on a team with one of the most competitive players ever, with pressure to perform now. Originally planning to attend UConn, Bynum instead chose to enter the NBA. His then high school coach tried to convince Bynum into attending college for a couple of years where he could hone his raw skills. Not even projected to break into UConn’s starting line-up, Bynum’s upside and potential nonetheless did not go unnoticed, most particularly by Kupchak. 

Photo by Newscom. ©2009 All rights reserved.

Photo by Newscom. ©2009 All rights reserved.

Seeing that his stamina and footwork were poor, the Lakers hired Hall of Fame center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to tutor the youngster. Bynum’s time on the court was sparse that first season. He averaged 7 minutes in only 46 appearances. Initially slow to pick up on the nuances of the game and growing weary of his individual workouts, Bynum often scoffed and complained of his non-role on the team. But when he did enter contests, even with his seven foot frame, Bynum was easily pushed aside by the stronger, more mature bigs in the league. He clearly needed work, and as time went on, we forgot about him. Not part of the rotation, the Lakers made the playoffs that year and in a surprise, had the Phoenix Suns against the wall in the first round. But the Suns eventually prevailed and another long off-season was in store for the new look Lakers. Bynum’s work in the weight room was apparent when training camp opened in the Fall. Gone were the baby fat and lack of definition, and a motivated Bynum competed for more playing time. Trading time with Kwame Brown, Bynum played in all 82 games that year and averaged just under 8 points a game in 22 minutes of action. He would display flashes of brilliance, only to follow them up with long stretches of uninspired play, mental lapses and careless turnovers. 

Bynum’s true potential finally emerged in a match-up against Shaquille O’Neal and the Miami Heat. If there ever was a measuring stick that Lakers fans could compare him with, Shaq was it. Shaq had a long history of indoctrinating young centers into the league and he was eager to please. On one play, he spun quickly around Bynum and slammed the ball with such force that it nearly decapitated the teenager. Undeterred, Bynum demanded the ball in the low post, and, performing his own spin move, adeptly caught O’Neal off guard and reciprocated with a ferocious dunk of his own. Showing fire for the first time, Bynum celebrated down the court and upon meeting Shaq in the post, gave him a hard forearm shiver to the back. Shaq turned and pushed Bynum away and the Staples Center crowd erupted in boos calling for Shaq’s ejection from the game. Order was quickly restored, Bynum was back safe on the bench, and Miami went on to win the game, and eventually the title that year.  

That one display of what could be, intrigued a city growing tired of the Lakers failing in the playoffs. The tumultuous offseason that followed put the crosshairs squarely between Bynum’s eyes. Kobe Bryant was filmed without his knowledge, mocking the young center, and pleading to a fan, asking why the Lakers didn’t trade him in exchange for Jason Kidd when the opportunity arose. Clearly disgruntled with his lack of support on the floor, Kobe demanded to be traded. Fortunately for the city of Los Angeles, that didn’t happen. With a third season about to begin, Bynum’s detractors were circling the wagon for his ouster. If Kobe wanted him out, we needed to trade him before we lost Kobe. But Kupchak would not budge on his young center, who, based on the three year plan, needed to start performing. Bynum arrived in training camp much more determined and defined, and with a full offseason dedicated to building up his physique and stamina, fine-tuning his offensive craft and honing his rebounding skills, Bynum blossomed before the coaching staff’s very eyes. 

In his first preseason game, Bynum showed that he was a different player. He powered his way around the basket and proved to be a reliable secondary defender, protecting the lane from penetrating guards. But even with all of the positives, he still fell into those lapses that have followed him his entire career. As the season began, Bynum’s play was average and often plagued by foul trouble. Kareem, now a fixture behind the Lakers’ bench as a Special Assistant Coach would simply close his eyes and shake his head. But Bynum persevered, and by December, his play was accelerating in huge leaps and bounds. In a nationally televised game on Christmas Day against the Phoenix Suns, Andrew recorded his best performance with 28 points (11-13), 12 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 blocked shots. Bynum’s play continued to shine and talk of a new dynasty began spreading throughout the league. Kobe was unusually mum about his trade demands, but he began to soften his stance as he too realized what was metamorphosing in front of him.

Bynum’s dream season came crashing down on January 13, when in a freak accident, Andrew stepped onto Lamar Odom’s foot and landed awkwardly. His knee buckled as he crumbled to the ground. As he lay on the floor, a concerned team came rushing to his aid, but it was clear that the injury was severe. Bynum suffered a dislocated kneecap and the prognosis was 8-12 weeks. Now needing a center to replace Bynum’s production in the middle, the Lakers stole Pau Gasol away from the Memphis Grizzlies. The team rode out the season without losing any momentum and secured the best record in the Western Conference on the last day of the regular season. Andrew’s status was the subject of much speculation and rumor. Sports talk radio projected his return sooner than later, and when that didn’t transpire, fans went on a “Bynum Watch.” Bynum’s recovery ended up taking much longer than expected, and as pain persisted, he was ruled out of the playoffs. Bynum underwent arthroscopic surgery in May to remove and smooth out debris that had caused discomfort during his rehabilitation.

The Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the Finals that year and were criticized for their softness, something the critics said that Bynum would have remedied had he been available. Kobe too, came out to say that his best chances to win another NBA title were here in Los Angeles with a healthy Andrew Bynum. And Lakers fans looked forward to another run at the title and the successful return of their big man. Bynum signed a long term contract for $58 million in the offseason, guaranteeing his return to the Lakers for the next 4 years. Kobe too, erased any thought of leaving and with the added emergence of young players, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar, the Lakers appeared set to return to their lofty position atop the NBA.

This season, Bynum started slowly at first, but as he became familiar with his teammates once again, his play began to elevate. The Lakers were now the clear favorites to win it all, and with Pau Gasol and Bynum both in the line-up together, opposing teams had no answers to slow down the seven foot tandem. Bynum began peaking as December and January came around. He posted a career high 42 points, 15 rebounds against the Clippers, and was averaging 14.3 points and 8 rebounds per game. As fate would have it, Bynum suffered another knee injury in another freak accident, this time at the hands of Kobe Bryant, as he fell off balance into Andrew’s right knee. Bynum’s screams of anguish brought back painful flashbacks of last season. And most distraught of all, was Kobe himself, who tried to comfort the fallen warrior.

The diagnosis was a torn MCL. The injury did not require surgery but needed time to mend on it’s own. The Lakers persevered again without their giant and again secured the best record in the West. With 4 games left in the regular season, Bynum made his much anticipated return to action. Wearing a heavy brace and looking slightly hesitant, Bynum displayed the ferocity that had been lacking, posting 16 points and 7 rebounds. Poised to help lead the Lakers deep into the playoffs, Bynum’s play has again been spotty at best, with flashes of brilliance thrown in as well. As has been the history with him, we will need to sit tight and wait for his emergence from this dormant state. But with a full season under their belts adding confidence and poise, the Lakers can bide their time with Andrew and allow him to make his grand entrance when he is good and ready, because this time around, they’ll wait.

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