His name is NOT Kobe Bryant.
Nor is it Lamar Odom.
Rather, it is Andrew Bynum, the sixth-year center, still only 23 and only the second lottery pick in Lakers history back in 2005 (Q: Who was the first? The answer at the end of this post*), who has at times been viewed as the Lakers’ next great center (in the tradition of Mikan, Wilt, Kareem and Shaq) and their bridge to the post-Kobe era, while at other times (and seemingly even at the same time sometimes) being linked to a steady stream of trade rumors. With the Lakers soon facing a definitive decision on Bynum’s future with the team, the only thing that seems clear is that, six years after drafting him, the Lakers still don’t know what they really have in him.
The last 4 games have been a microcosm of Bynum’s career. In the first 3, he average 16.7rbg, dominating defensively against some of the most formidable teams in the NBA. Against the Heat on Thursday, he all but disappeared against NBA retread Erick Dampier, notching just 1 rebound in the 1st half while suffering a minor ankle injury.
To measure Bynum’s career, and value to the Lakers, is a clear case in which the numbers don’t really tell the story. The numbers say a few contrasting things, among them:
His rebounding, which was at 10.2 rpg back in ‘07-‘08 (before the season-ending injury against Memphis in January of that year, and also before the Gasol trade), has dipped since the acquisition of Gasol, hovering either slightly above or below the 8.0 rpg mark since then.
Likewise, his blocked shots, which were at 2.1 bpg back in ’07-’08, have dipped since then, to 1.8 bpg in ’08-’09 and 1.4 bpg last season, although it has ticked up to 1.9 bpg so far this year.
On the other hand, his points production, which was at 13.1 ppg back in ’07-’08, went up to 14.3 ppg in ’08-’09 and then to 15.0 ppg last season before dipping to 11.3 ppg so far this year, even though his field goal percentage has declined from 63.6% in ’07-’08, suggesting that (until this season, anyway) he was carving out a bigger role in the Lakers’ offense.
However, these numbers don’t convey just how much of a roller-coaster his Lakers career has been. To wit, they don’t capture (1) how his emergence as a force in the middle in the ’07-’08 season was perhaps the single most important factor in getting Kobe to back off of his trade demands from the summer of ’07 (to the point where Kobe said that the Lakers were a championship-caliber team with Bynum), (2) how the size advantage of Bynum paired with Gasol has been described by many (including Phil Jackson) as the Lakers’ single biggest advantage come playoff time, and (3) how his physicality and defensive presence has helped render the paint practically impenetrable for Lakers’ opponents on many a night.
On the other hand, they also don’t capture his susceptibility to disappear on both ends of the court for stretches of games, and for whole games, at a time – or the questions that have arisen about his intensity and commitment to maximizing his potential.
One other number, though, does capture a major concern of the Lakers about Bynum as an integral member of their future: the number of games missed due to injury in the past few seasons (47 in ’07-’08, 32 in ’08-’09, 17 last season and 25 so far this season). It’s hard to count on a player as a cornerstone of the future if you also have to count on him missing significant chunks of playing time due to an inability to stay healthy.
Bynum’s current contract with the Lakers (which was extended during the ’08-’09 season) has him due over $15 million next season (assuming that it isn’t wiped out by a lockout), with a team option for 2012-13 at just under $16.5 million. However, the combination of these numbers, the prospect of shelling out another big-money extension and the up-and-down nature of his play has raised considerable speculation as to whether Bynum will still be a Laker by the time his contract runs out. He was recently rumored as trade bait for Carmelo Anthony, and in the midst of such speculation, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times broke with the basketball orthodoxy of not trading big for small to advocate that the Lakers make the trade. His opinion was by no means shared by all, including within his own newspaper, but it reflected the ambivalence that many Lakers
observers and fans have about Bynum after all this time.
The Carmelo trade speculation was, of course, not the first time that Bynum’s name has come up in trade rumors. Over the years, he has been rumored to be trade bait for Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Gasol, Chris Bosh, and even LeBron James, among others. Each time, the combination of his potential plus his size (and the accompanying advantages thereof) kept the Lakers from advancing discussions or from entertaining such discussions in the first place. That may not continue for much longer, however. The Lakers resisted whatever temptation they may have had to deal Bynum for Melo, but there’s another player out there, someone eligible for free agency in the summer of 2012, whose appeal will be much harder to ignore. As Harvey Araton of The New York Times recently put it:
“Next season, maybe Bynum becomes trade bait for a positional upgrade with [Dwight] Howard when Howard is a prohibitive favorite to create his own 24/7 news media melodrama.”
“Maybe”? More like, count on it. Speculation on this front has already begun, and (depending on the terms of the next collective bargaining agreement) figures to get only louder until Howard’s contract situation in Orlando is settled. Whatever the terms of the next collective bargaining agreement may be, if Howard doesn’t like the Magic’s direction, indicates that he will not re-sign no matter what and further indicates that the Lakers are his preferred destination (speculation on this last point will not die), then: (1) the opportunity for the Lakers to get a significant upgrade on both sides of the court in someone who is only 2 years older than Bynum and just entering his prime would presumably be too good for the Lakers to pass up and (2) Bynum would be a better consolation prize for the Magic than anyone else they would probably be able to get. Much remains to be seen, but it is entirely possible that by this time next year (or perhaps even sooner), Andrew Bynum could be Orlando’s enigma to try to solve.
*The first lottery pick in Lakers history was Eddie Jones in 1994.