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Monday, April 16, 2012

Bynum Better Without Kobe? (4.16.12)

Since the Lakers have gone 4-1 with Kobe Bryant sitting on the bench due to a shin injury, many critics have pointed to Andrew Bynum's recent dominant performances as a product of a Kobe-less team. These critics have also implied that Bynum is playing well simply due to Kobe's subtraction. Bynum actually contributed to this narrative by bringing up his recent upward allocation of touches during an interview before the nationally televised game against the Mavericks on Sunday. While it does make sense for Bynum's offensive numbers to increase with Kobe Bryant on the bench, it doesn't necessarily mean that Bynum is more efficient. Bynum's activity level in the paint has been more impressive than the amount of shots he has been taking.

Andrew Bynum became the first player since Moses Malone in 1982 to follow a 30 rebound game by scoring over 30 points in the next game. This historical feat has not been accomplished in 30 years! Think about all of the great centers from the past 30 years; not one of them was able to do such a thing. Pretty impressive. But do you know why that stat is so impressive? Well it's not because of the 30 points, let's just get that out of the way. Walton, Abdul-Jabbar, Olajuwon, Ewing, Robinson, O'Neal; those guys were all great, and they could all score 30 anytime they wanted. The real impressive stat is the 30 rebound mark. Getting 30 rebounds in one game is all about effort. Bynum shot 7-20 against the Spurs, but he didn't let that impact his effort level on the boards. Bynum was 5-15 in the first half of that game, but he had 19 rebounds at the half. He actually had 1 more rebound than the entire Spurs team at the half. Bynum's offensive activity took a dive in the second half, as he shot 2-5, but Bynum still crashed the glass and pulled down another 11 rebounds. Bynum's 30 rebounds were 2 short of the entire output of the Spurs that night. Despite his offensive struggles, Bynum played hard and controlled the paint. Fast forward to the Nuggets game on Friday. Bynum followed up his historic rebounding night with this line, 11-19 for 30 points, with 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks, 1 steal, and 4 turnovers. I don't want to sound too critical of a 30 point game, but Bynum should have had no problem getting a double double against the likes of an undersized Kenneth Faried, a stiff Timofey Mozgov, and the bonehead of all boneheads, JaVale McGee. For this being Bynum's best offensive game of the Kobe-less stretch, some things jump out. First is the number of turnovers. Those 4 turnovers are the highest Bynum accumulated in a single game during the 5 games without Kobe. Bynum clearly struggles against quick double teams. Bynum is much more effective when he is able to take two dribbles to set up his move and shoot in rhythm. When Bynum is doubled immediately, or just after one dribble, he tends to hold onto the ball too long and turn it over. Bynum still needs work on passing out of double teams quickly and easily. If Bynum really does want to be the featured offensive focal point, this will need to be improved dramatically. Those turnovers may not seem like a lot, but for a post player, someone who doesn't handle the ball too much, 4 turnovers is a lot. The next item that jumps out is the efficient use of the touches Bynum had against the Nuggets. Bynum took just 19 shots, and he efficiently made 11 of them. Bynum actually had more touches, as he attacked the rim and was fouled multiple times, making 8-11 free throws, his highest free throw output of the Kobe-less stretch. Throughout the Kobe-less stretch, this efficient game stood out as an exception rather than the norm. However, Bynum's 30 points put him in a place not seen in 30 years. His consecutive efforts were clearly impressive. Now that I've covered Bynum's spectacular nights that put him in the record books, it is time to look at the 5 game Kobe-less stretch as a whole.

ESPN and other networks have begun discussing if Andrew Bynum is being held back by Kobe Bryant. While the simple answer may be yes, especially considering Bynum's two excellent games, the more detailed answer is a resounding NO. This season, Andrew Bynum has averaged 18.6 points per game on .558% shooting, while averaging 13.3 shots per game. Pair that efficiency with his 12.2 rebounds and Bynum is an efficient double double machine. In the five games without Kobe, Bynum's activity has jumped through the roof. Bynum has averaged 22 points per game, but on just .411% shooting, with 21.4 shots per game. Bynum's assists, blocks, steals, and turnovers have remained relatively the same in this stretch when compared to the rest of the season, however, Bynum's rebounds have increased from 12.2 for the season to 16.6 during the stretch. Bynum's minutes have only increased by 2 when compared to the rest of the season. So what happened? Bynum scored 4 more points per game, but he took an extra 7 shots to get those 4 points. Bynum's efficiency on the offensive end plummeted by almost 15%. Bynum's plummet is not a byproduct of just one bad game either. Other than his 30 point game against the Nuggets, Bynum had not topped .412% shooting in any other game during this stretch. Here are his numbers for the last 5 games: 10-27, 7-17, 7-20, 11-19, 9-24. For a guy who doesn't shoot more than twice outside of 10ft per game, these numbers are pretty unbelievable. However, Bynum counteracted his offensive woes with these rebounding numbers: 18, 11, 30, 8, 16. So what gives? Does Andrew Bynum's activity level directly correlate to his offensive role on the team? If Bynum doesn't get the number of touches he desires, does that mean he won't crash the glass as hard? With such a small sample size, it is difficult to definitively come to an answer; however, it does seem like Bynum is more motivated to perform a complete game when he is more involved on the offensive end. This makes sense. Anyone who has ever played basketball understands that a player will probably try harder in all aspects of the game when he is happy with his role on the team. So the simple answer stands at a yes. Bynum is being held back by Kobe essentially because, with Kobe on the team, Bynum is relegated to a different role. However, is Bynum a better player without Kobe and should Kobe's presence effect Andrew's effort level?

Now there is a twist to the ESPN question. Yes, Andrew Bynum's outbursts are a byproduct of Kobe Bryant sitting on the bench. However, these outbursts have also highlighted an inefficient Andrew Bynum. Bynum's touches have gone up, but his efficiency has plummeted. Centers should never be volume scorers. It should not be difficult to shoot around 50% when the majority of your shots come from about 6ft. It is understandable for a perimeter player to be a volume scorer because perimeter players shoot a majority of their shots from a further distance. Steve Nash, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant are the only perimeter players shooting above 50% from the field this season. Out of the 19 guys shooting over 50% this season, 16 of them are big men. So for Andrew Bynum to be in such an offensive slump, it must have something to do with Kobe not playing. Spacing is a little more clogged. Doubles come more often. Kobe isn't there to shoot the bail out shots to beat the shot clock. Essentially, Bynum is asked to do more, and he is struggling, at least on the offensive end. However, Bynum has also increased his activity levels to offset his offensive struggles. By controlling the paint and pulling down over 16 boards a game, Bynum is limiting teams to one and done situations, and as a result, the Lakers are pulling out victories. Does Bynum's effort on the glass have anything to do with Kobe Bryant not playing? No.

So to finally answer the question posed by ESPN and the basketball community at large, Bynum is holding himself back. During this stretch, Bynum has relished his offensive opportunities, and he has rewarded the team with supreme effort. When Kobe comes back, will Andrew give the same type of effort once his touches drop back down? That question remains to be seen. Maybe this Kobe-less stretch will open Andrew's eyes and he will continue dominating the glass. I'm pretty sure Coach Kobe has loved the effort of his budding superstar. Kobe may even throw Andrew a bone and give him a couple more touches per game just to keep the big man satisfied. That may become the final solution. Kobe will shoot just a bit less, Andrew will shoot just a bit more, they both will attack with more efficiency, and Drew will continue with his stellar work on the glass. That situation is plausible, and it is an equation for success. Whatever happens, the Lakers are a scary team if Andrew Bynum controls the paint.

Essentially, Drew's effort level will be the biggest factor in the postseason for the Lakers. When Bynum is in beast mode, the Lakers win. Just look at the last five games. Other than the dreadful Phoenix game, when Shannon Brown and Michael Redd took turns annihilating the rim with swishes from all over the court, the Lakers defeated 3 playoff teams, knocking off the lowly Hornets, 93-91, destroying the Spurs, 98-84, defeating the Nuggets, 103-97, and pulling out the overtime victory over the Mavericks, 112-108. Bynum was efficient in just one out of the five games, yet the Lakers won four out of five. This can be explained by Bynum's ability to anchor the defense. Denver and San Antonio are rated #1 and #3 for the highest scoring teams in the league, yet the Lakers held them well below their averages. If Andrew can play with this level of intensity in the paint for the remainder of the year, the Lakers may raise their 17th championship banner and tie the Boston Celtics for the most championships in NBA history.

In a season full of historical accomplishments, tying the Celtics in the championship stratosphere and moving one step closer toward an all time historical franchise greatness would be the ultimate accomplishment. Bynum has pulled off historical feats just in the past week. Kobe is close to becoming the second oldest scoring champion in NBA history, and just the third guy over 30 to win the scoring title. David Stern vetoed the biggest Lakers acquisition since Shaq in 1996 with his too close for comfort hand in the New Orleans Hornets brass. Yet it would all be trumped with a championship. More than anything else, Bynum's effort level can take the Lakers there. Regardless of his offensive output, if Bynum owns the paint, the Lakers will be a contender that no one can match up with. Trust me, nobody wants to play against a team featuring Kobe Bryant on offense with an active Andrew Bynum controlling the paint.

Nobody.

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