I kicked around the idea and got excited about it like it was some kind of realization unique to me, but I have my doubts. I mean, if Greg Anthony and those cats are talking about it, I’m far from original, but I figured since I thought of it independent of Greg Anthony, but possibly in dependence (would agreement be more appropriate, cahoots?) with Jim Buss (oh, the skin crawls just thinking I might agree with this Buss), it was worthy of a developed post here. And so I bring you the question: Is Andrew Bynum on par with Dwight Howard?
Before anyone goes all Stephen A. Smith on me and covers their keyboard with spittle or coffee or whatever’s in your mouth, I request the opportunity to define the terms of the question and answer.
I arrived at this question way back last week and would’ve asked it on the spot, but DeMarcus Cousins got the best of my limited attention span, so I had to wait until now. After serving his four-game suspension for flattening the smallest man in a Mavs uniform in last year’s playoffs (wrong place, wrong time, JJ), Andy B. returned to the court for the Lakers on New Year’s Eve and imposed his knees and arms all over the faces of the Denver Nuggets. Bynum is listed as a mere 7’0” tall, but I can’t help but second guess this listing as my TV projects the man to be mammothly large and possessed of limbs that stretch and stretch up beyond the heights of your everyday, average NBA seven-footer. It’s these same limbs that make anyone who watches Laker games cringe when he jumps or stretches for a loose ball for a couple reasons: First: His injury history precedes him (over his six-year career, he’s averaged 55 games/season … he misses, on average a third of his team’s games every season) and second: Those legs, as much as they’ve developed in terms of strength and balance, still conjure up images of Bambi or some other four-legged creature with legs that are far too structurally weak for the physique that sits atop. This haunting fear that Andy’s legs aren’t ready for his body may be a thing of the past, but old fears die slow … or they get medicated. Back to New Year’s Eve, the new introduction for Andrew Bynum, his first game being coached by new Laker Coach, Mike Brown. His first night out he shot 13-18 from the field, grabbed 13 rebounds and finished the game with 29 points. Welcome aboard, why yes, the Lakers have plenty of minutes available for a man who can do these things on a regular basis, but therein lies the variation between Dwight and Andy: Can Andy do it every night? Will he stop parking in handicapped spots and cramming his still-growing frame in Porsche 911s and just focus on his core—in the Billy Blanks sense, not the Jabbar sense.
Whatever Andy does off the court is just an expression of sorts, but it’s in part who he thinks he is, who he thinks people want him to be and who he thinks he should be. It’s all a juggling act and sometimes the groceries fall down and big, tall Andy Bynum, a world champion has to reach down in the grocery store and pick up his own vegetables when really, we’d all like to see him focused on the task at hand which is health and consistency as a Los Angeles Laker. So the first game was nice, but let’s see what followed and what we can see ahead, maybe to the future if they’ll even accept our probing inquisitions.
We don’t need the Hubbell telescope to see these stars, we have basketball -reference.com instead, an aggregator of all things black, white and numerical that have occurred in the NBA. Just know how to ask. Well, I asked and it turns out Andy’s first game against those Nuggets of Denver wasn’t no fluke (not no fluke I said). His performances on the young season:
15.7rpg – that’s where it’s at
And over 50% from the field.
He’s less efficient than he has been in the past, but increased opportunities are going to lead to declines in efficiency.
Among the nights that made up the averages you see above was a masterful, fan-fueled evening at the Statples Center where Mr. B achieved his career-first 20-20 game. It was done against Houston on Wednesday night and it has to be noted that the Rockets’ front court isn’t quite mediocre. It’s not from a lack of effort. They tried for trades, but ran into David Stern’s heavy handed gavel. Don’t you think Pau Gasol for Houston would’ve made it more difficult for Andy to achieve 20-20 than Pau Gasol for Los Angeles? Houston couldn’t hold down the 7’2” Bynum and so it was on NBA TV, I believe, I began chewing the fat that not only are the Lakers maybe better with Bynum than Howard, but maybe Bynum’s just better than Dwight.
Better and different are words that walk a fine line and when they’re used together like that it’s usually to dispel a given notion or just to engage in a deeper dissection about Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum.
On that same night when NBA TV was flashing graphics and stats like they’re tuned into the mainframe of NBA statistical databases and can present these informations with just a glance at huge HD screens, that’s when the topic came to Greg Anthony and his partners (Kenny? Webber? Both?). Anyhow, they big upped Andy’s accomplishment and then showed how many 20-20 games Dwight has had in his career (playoffs included): 39. Damn.
This disparity between 20-20 games really got me thinking and slicing the argument in different ways because as great as 20-20 is, you can hide a basket of fundamental flaws beneath the weight of those robust numbers that have the power to shape the ideas and contracts of American sports team owners which clearly isn’t our intent here because we’re just asking a few innocent questions.
Since I like boxing, I felt necessary to introduce the Tail of the Tape to this strange conversation that lost its way a while ago and continues to falter as we take our little steps forward.
Only family members and people who are paid by Dwight or the Orlando Magic should be forced to count his awards. The lists are redundant and bleed into the same award after 15 seconds.
If this were boxing, we’d all be enamored with the physical advantages held by the younger man. We’ be applauding lesser usage and predicting years of Dwight jumping up and down on pogo stick legs would eventually give out in a way that not even WD40 can resolve, but instead we’re looking at two very different basketball players who play the same position but do it so differently and do so for so many reasons.
Beyond the futuristic athleticism that was bestowed on Dwight by a combination of the Gods up on basketball Olympus and the genetic engineers over at Georgia Tech, the man has the Russellian/Rodmandian ability to dominate a game without having to shoot the ball. Whether he realizes it or not, this is a gift. He’s athletic enough to divert oppositions from painted areas out of fear that he’ll take their precious ball and give it to one of his own teammates if he so chooses. Or perhaps he’ll swat it away, into the hands of a paying customer, excited to be part of the game, amazed at the freakish shoulders of the man in front of him.
But beyond this rare gift is a counter-balance that seems contrived which makes it even worse. Dwight wants the ball. He wants to score it, dunk it, make passes to his friends so they too can feel what it’s like to be part of the big moment. It’s odd that this selfish part of his personality (however real it is) demands the ball for points. It’s really just an extension of his desire to be the center of attention and we all know scorers get the most attention. Dwight’s not a natural scorer though. Does he score and score efficiently? Yes, but for all his private workouts with Hakeem, his offense is still in development stages eight years into the league. And to make matters worse, I don’t think Dwight would give two spits about points if it didn’t mean more attention or if it didn’t mean he’d be more accepted by his peers. Dwight gets his fair share of plays drawn up these days, but he’s still at his best when he’s catching lobs or cleaning up the offensive glass. He uses his indomitable physical strength to outwork or outmaneuver the opposition, his presence alone opening up driving lanes and looks from beyond the arc for a supporting cast that’s been built to complement his skills—occupying the paint. Dwight shouldn’t be the focal point of an offense because it’s not best-suited for his game. If he were ever to come to this conclusion, he’d realize that imposing his will in the Russell fashion allows him to shape the outcome of games in ways that he only occasionally realizes. To be completely fair, Dwight’s only led his team in FGAs/game once his career—last season. His willingness to (mostly) accept the role Stan Van Gundy has carved out for him is commendable, but acceptance and embracing are different things altogether.
Then there’s big Andy who fits the traditional center character-type. He’s comfortable with his back to the basket, posting up and creating his own shots out of the post. His high shoulders and aforementioned long limbs allow him to get his shots off with ease and he’s developed a touch that the more-experienced Howard is still fine tuning. He’s able to reach over the opposition for rebounds without actually going over the back; a bizarre skill that few players possess. Removing injuries from the discussion, there’s an unknown that’s accompanied Bynum his entire career: Kobe Bryant. Bynum is paid like the superstar Jim Buss has always seen him as ($31million over next two seasons), but he’s never had the opportunity to explore the ceilings of his talents because he can’t stay on the court and even when he’s there, he’s the second or third option to Kobe and Gasol. This young season is the first time we’ve seen Bynum on the court for extended periods (34mpg is 4 more than his previous career high and his usage rate is 27% compared to his previous career-best of 20.8%) and the early returns are staggeringly better than anything we’ve ever seen from him. Plateaus aren’t part of the Bynum vocabulary today and until he levels off, the statistical possibilities and in-game impacts will be nothing but speculation.
In Andy’s 330+ game career, we’ve seen snippets of his 2011-12 performance, but it’s never been sustainable. Whether Gasol, Kobe or Phil Jackson impeded his progress, injuries got in the way or he just wasn’t ready for the increased role, he’s never been capable of persistent dominance. And it’d be an act of blind faith to believe the injuries are a thing of the past, but for the first time, it’s not a stretch to give Jim Buss the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge he may be onto something with this big kid. Does that mean Andrew Bynum is better than Dwight Howard? Absolutely not. I’m excited about Bynum going for 18 and 15 over a six-game stretch. Dwight’s been doing this regularly for well over 400 straight games and has the individual honors to prove it. Add in Howard’s commitment to fitness and reliability (he’s missed seven of a possible 583 games) and he’s one of the most consistent and productive players in the past 20 years whereas we’re still praying for an injury-free season from Andy.
Given Bynum’s age and the waves of potential flowing from his massive frame, we can at least hit the pause button on the “big man is dead” statements that have been so popular over the past few years. Andrew Bynum is giving hope to the great Pete Newell and seven footers around the world: You too can play with your back to the basket. He’s not on Dwight’s level yet and may never find that regularity, but in the infant stages of a new season, Bynum is injecting his name into conversations reserved for all-stars and future of famers. The immense ability coupled with the always-present questions about durability make Bynum’s career nerve racking. If I have anxieties and worry about Bynum’s injuries as a basketball fan, I can’t imagine the fears lying in the depths of the minds of Jim Buss or Mitch Kupchak. Bynum’s own feelings about his injuries remain a mystery.