By Lachlan Waugh
The rise and ultimate climax of tension between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant resulted in Jerry Buss sticking by his pet project in Kobe, and Shaquille O’Neal being traded away in 2004 – the Lakers gained Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a future first round draft pick from the trade. What we knew though, was that the Lakers in no way would be a ‘championship’ team anymore. No Phil Jackson, no dominating Shaq and a young and still immature Kobe Bryant leading the team saw the near future possibly being rough for the team once dubbed ‘Showtime’. It was so bad that the Clippers finished three games higher than the Lakers in the first season without Shaq, and the Lakers went through more coaches in the next six months than they would in the next six years. All this though did mean something good, in that a high first round pick would be granted to the Lakers. The 10th pick to be exact, and, dear I say, the opinions of young Jim Buss, the son of Dr. Jerry, saw another big man possibly filling the coveted centre position for the Lakers.
Jim Buss saw Andrew Bynum as the man to take in the draft, regardless of more promising guys like Danny Granger or Gerald Green, Buss saw a physique capable of low post dominance, and his late father had faith in his son’s perception. Regardless of Bynum’s early years of struggle, his 2007-08 season was one of significant improvement and where he began to meet expectations. Both his PPG an RPG increased into double digits, and clearly the addition of Pau Gasol, as a versatile two-way forward gave Bynum a ‘buddy’ to team up with down-low. The Lakers finished 57-25 that season and entered the playoffs with hope of a championship, after three seasons of mediocre records. Bynum’s breakout year came in 2011-12, where he was named an All-Star starter. By this stage, he was a two time champion and a consistent threat on both sides of the court when healthy. Bynum’s stats all improved to career highs, where he averaged 18.7 PPG and 11.8 RPG, as well as his field goals made and attempted all improved with a respectable 58% from the field overall. Bynum blossomed at the right time, where Yao Ming had retired due to consistent injuries and the likes of Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol all began to decline due to age. Although the Lakers were eliminated in the semi-finals later on, Bynum’s improvement along with Coach Brown’s promising finish to the season caused expectations to rise a little further for the Lakers, and possibly another championship to make 17.
Granted there have been players with greater accolades to cut their career short. Yao Ming is the top of this list, being a huge man inside at 7 ft. 6, and able to shoot the ball from mid-range. He is often joined by Penny Hardaway, the original ‘Shaq and Kobe’ duo in Orlando, Max Zaslofsky back in the 50’s who simply could not handle the improved competition in the NBA and many more. But Bynum had the talent, the promise, and already, in some way, the launching pad to make him better. Bynum was brought up through an established coaching scheme and franchise where he was tutored by Pau during games, but also legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during practices. The departure of Phil Jackson and arrival of Mike Brown may have looked bad on the surface for the Lakers, but when Brown promised to play Bynum for more and include him as the go-to guy inside, this was what would make him the perennial West All-Star centre.
So how did it all go wrong?
Injury, it is no secret, which makes it the more upsetting.
As mentioned before, the plagued career of Yao Ming could have been a possible pointer towards Bynum’s future. It was not exactly being fat, but simply big and solid. The weight of Yao Ming (310 pounds) bearing down on his knees was too much, considering the back and forth running over his 9 year NBA career. Yao suffered a career ending ankle injury which was influenced by prior injuries in 2010. Bynum is a little shorter than Yao, yet he still weighed a hefty 285 pounds, and the Lakers were still content in taking a risk in the 2005 draft with his selection.
In January 2008, Bynum suffered a dislocated knee cap which put him out for the rest of the season, prompting the Lakers to then acquire Pau Gasol. Bynum underwent surgery in June that year and was quickly ready for training camp to begin the next year. His 2008-09 season was promising early on where he recorded career highs in points and rebounds. Unfortunately, in a collision with Kobe Bryant, Bynum suffered a sprained MCL and missed 32 games to end the season. He returned in April, but was in no way help to the Lakers championship victory over Orlando, having below double-digit averages and averaging just 19 minutes in the Finals. The Lakers utilized their depth at the forward positions in moving Gasol to centre and playing Odom at the four.
By this stage, Bynum had only played 85 out of a possible 162 games. Bynum managed to stay healthy throughout most of the 2009-10 season where he won his second ring with the Lakers, though another knee injury in the playoffs vs. the Thunder, Bynum was in and out of the rest of the post season, but played all 23 games. It was the third straight year the Lakers’ playoff run had been impacted by knee injuries at the position, an all three happened to be the same player. Bynum decided to get more surgery in 2010 on July 28th, but delayed surgery because of a vacation meant he did not return until December. Bynum’s 2010-11 season though was still a strong outing, where during the Lakers great month in March, he recorded 10 or more rebounds in five straight games, and grabbing a then career high 23 rebound against the Jazz. Bynum averaged 11 points and 12 rebounds after the All-Star break, adding grunt inside to add to Bryant and Gasol’s high scoring seasons.
The Lakers entered the playoffs, tipped to win a third title against a stacked Miami Heat side. The Lakers ran into trouble with a hard fought 4-2 series win over the Hornets, until they finally ‘got what they deserved’, as said by Lamar Odom, when Dallas destroyed them in a series sweep in the semis. Bynum played well in the playoffs overall, but ended the season on a massive low with a bush league hit on J.J. Barea, which sent a message around the NBA – two championships does not make you a mature and respectable player.
Bynum’s next major injury came at the start of the 2012-13 seasons, after he was traded to the 76ers. The trade, which sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers, did not give the Magic a strong replacement, where they refused receiving Bynum due to injury and immaturity risks. Both Philadelphia and Denver were later included in the trade, and Bynum was sent to Philly. He would miss the remainder of the season after more knee surgeries, and did not play one game for the 76ers as he later signed with the Cavaliers in 2013. Bynum’s lack of play time and lack of faith from other GM’s around the league made him a redundant player and former star by this stage.
Thanks to the Warriors and Steph Curry, three-point shooting is now the number one focus offensively for teams. DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol are a few players who have adapted to this, and with a player who could not it a mid-range jumper to save his life, Bynum has become nothing less than extinct in the modern day of the NBA.