The Los Angeles Lakers have a decided advantage in their conference semifinals series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. His name: Andrew Bynum.
Lakers fans, don’t hold your breath.
Anyone who has watched the Lakers play over the last month, the last seven games against the Denver Nuggets in particular, knows that the odds of Bynum playing consistently up-to-par are about as long as his 7’5″ wingspan. The most consitency Bynum has shown in 2012 has been saying awkwardly honest soundbites during postgame interviews while remaining remarkably healthy for the first time in his pro career.
The two consitencies are juxtaposed because on one hand, Bynum has submitted to the Lakers his first of what they hope to be many all-star campaigns, while simultaneously growing too big for his britches for some of the fanbase and front office. All the while, he appears to be very cognizant of both, and even more so seems to be throwing it in people’s faces.
To put it bluntly, Bynum is petulant. We’ve seen him throw tantrums during games, take ill-advised (to say the least) three pointers, sit away from his teammates and coaching staff during timeouts of playoff games, boast playoff wins are “easy” to get, and be fined for missing meetings with Lakers executives.
What’s not to like?
Despite his relative youth (he’s still only 24 years old), he’s in his seventh year as a professional. After Game 5, The “Inside the NBA” guys on TNT were split on how much more Bynum will develop from this point in his career going forward. Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith both said that after seven seasons he is a finished product, and there isn’t much more improvement to be made barring some miracle.
Shaquille O’Neal disagreed with that notion, and at the same time made excuses for Bynum’s being less than enthusiatic on defense. He explained that Bynum had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and that somehow meant that he contributed what he should have. At the same time, he said that it’s hard to give maximum effort on defense when you don’t feel you’re getting the ball enough offensively.
O’Neal was known throughout his career to give excuses for his own poor defensive play by saying things like “the big dog” has to get “fed” to “protect the yard”, so its fairly easy to read between the lines of his take.
Whether or not O’Neal has a valid point (no, he doesn’t), it’s obvious that in 2012, for the first time in maybe a decade, the Lakers will not be able to win with Kobe Bryant alone. For better or worse, Bynum will determine just how far the Lakers go, and how much fight they go with.
So as they prepare to meet the Thunder in Game 1 tonight, amid all the storylines surrounding the game (Metta World Peace and James Harden, Oklahoma looking to avenge the 2010 playoff exit while actualizing their primes, Ice Cube having a brain freeze accepting the irony of his Lakers being underdogs in the playoffs and having to beat the team that used to be the Supersonics), no subplot will have a greater impact on the result of the series than the one involving Andrew Bynum playing at his full potential, giving the Lakers their only chance to win.
Hear me out. In the three regular season games against the Thunder Bynum averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds on .444 shooting, all numbers below his overall season averages (18/12/.558).
But Bynum averages 3.7 blocks against the Thunder, his highest per game numbers versus any team in 2012. The Thunder have two-and-a-half looking to score (MVP-runner up Kevin Durant, point-guard-in-name-only Russell Westbrook, and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden) which, believe it or not, is less than what the Lakers faced in Round 1 with the Nuggets (Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Al Harrington, Aaron Afflalo, Andre Miller, and as it turned out Kenneth Faried and Javale McGee).
While the fashionable thing has been to blame Bynum’s effort and Bynum’s effort alone for allowing Faried and McGee to average 22.5 points and 20 rebounds between Games 3-6, I’m going to only give ninety percent of teh blame to his effort. Even the biggest Bynum apoligists (especially one whose name rhymes with Rim Fuss) would have to attest that Bynum’s poor defensive rotation and lack of help defense with any urgency in Games 3-6 led to inflated numbers from the rookie Faried and the enigma McGee.
The “why” for Bynum’s lackadasical effort is a mystery since despite him appearing accountable for his poor play, he never indicates what leads to those kinds of performances beyond a shrug-shouldered “I don’t know”.
I don’t know this for a fact, and I’m not Shaq, but it appeared that being upset about his percieved lack of offensive touches directly effected his defensive effort. At times against the Nuggets, Bynum’s lack of effort on defense was his personal worst of the season, and led to TNT color commentator Steve Kerr to say it was the worst he’d seen in the playoffs (and Lakers fans to say worse).
Despite Magic Johnson’s claims that head coach Mike Brown is on win or go home forever terms with the Lakers, and though it’s in Brown’s best interest to do what he can to ensure Bynum plays his best, there has been no evidence that Brown has any influence over Bynum’s decision to play well. And make no mistake about it, it is a decision.
Brown has benched Bynum, taken Phil Jackson-esque stabs at both he and the Lakers other big man (Pau Gasol) through the media, but nothing ever seems to phase Bynum.
The good news for the Lakers is that, from a basketball standpoint, should Bynum decide to give the required defensive effort at center, there is a game plan available for success against the Thunder. Durant will be guarded mostly by World Peace, and its been shown that the physicality will bother him, so that will lead to more Westbrook-Ramon Sessions/Steve Blake top-of-the-key scenarios. Westbrook will blow by Sessions 9 out of 10 times, but should the Thunder use the pick and roll, all Bynum needs to do is stay home with his hands high, forcing pull up jumpers rather than higher percentage layups from Westbrook.
When driving to the basket, Westbrook is rarely looking to pass (unlike Andre Miller from Round 1, and while he’s only an average finisher when challenged at the rim. Bynum can play the Game 1 defense that George Karl thought was illegal, allow Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins to float outside of the key, and meet Westbrook at the rim.
The formula won’t work with 100 percent accuracy, but it is the Lakers best and only chance. Whether or not Bynum wants to adhere to it remains to be seen.