The Broken Building Block?

Darius Soriano —  December 8, 2011

Emile Avanessian runs the fantastic site Hardwood Hype and is a friend of FB&G. He’ll be contributing to FB&G periodically and his first effort looks at Andrew Bynum as a building block and franchise player of the future. Please join me in welcoming  him. You can follow him on twitter here.

Barring a league-altering trade that for the second time in a decade and a half would deliver a Sunshine State Superman to Staples Center (yeah, I know Shaq first arrived at the Forum, but I wanted to ride that one out), there is a good chance that Andrew Bynum will be the next face of the Lakers franchise. And on the surface it makes perfect sense.

I’ve maintained for some time that when healthy, Andrew Bynum is the NBA’s most skilled pure center. When healthy, he’s one of a small (and dwindling) number of old-school big men capable of dominating the paint at both ends. At his best, thanks to an ungodly combination of physical tools and mastery of the game’s finer points, to say nothing of the tutelage of the Captain himself, Bynum resembles an evolutionary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

At seven-feet and nearly 300 pounds, Andrew Bynum goes where he wants on a basketball court. On offense, he does an outstanding job of carving out post position. Once there, he creates a “big target” for a passer, and has great coordination and soft hands with which to receive the ball. Once those hands are on the ball, be it off of a pass or a rebound, he- a la Kareem- does an exceptional job of keeping the ball high, where few, if any, members of the human race have a realistic shot at acquiring it from him. A defender’s job gets no easier when he goes to work in the post, where he possesses excellent footwork, strong, fundamentally sound post moves and- the aspect of his game in which Kareem’s fingerprints are most visible- an outstanding eye for passing lanes and great finesse on his passes, out of double teams as well as to cutters, both on the baseline and in the lane.

At the defensive end, Bynum’s jumping ability and incredible wingspan make him a terror for anyone looking to attack the paint. Not only is he excellent at changing shots near the rim, he addresses a significant Laker-specific issue by helping to negate, at least partially, the team’s shocking lack of speed and quickness at the point. Derek Fisher (now 37) and Steve Blake are still in the mix, as is Darius Morris, a talented youngster from Michigan that could have an impact as a rookie, but is little better equipped than his veteran counterparts to deal with the likes of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose.

Just 24 years old, 20+ PER each of the past four seasons, at least 9.7 rebounds/36 minutes each of the last five seasons, 12+ twice (12.2/36 last season) and a Block Rate superior to Dwight Howard’s (4.8 v. 4.5). A double-double waiting to happen and a virtual lock to put up no worse than 18, 12 and 2.5 blocks over an entire season. Simply put, when healthy, Andrew Bynum is potentially a franchise cornerstone.

When healthy.

That, my friend, is the rub with Andrew Bynum. Over the past four years, injuries have sidelined him for 124- or 37.8%- of’ 328 regular season games- costing him no fewer than 17 games per season during that stretch- shelved him for the entire 2008 postseason and limited him to less than 18 minutes per game in the Lakers’ 2009 title run.

Now, there is a case to be made that while ‘Drew has been frequently bitten by the injury bug, the freak nature of his injuries (landing on Lamar Odom’s foot in 2008, colliding with Kobe a year later) point not to a chronic Bill Walton/Greg Oden-esque pattern, but simply an extended streak of bad luck. Perhaps. But whatever the circumstances surrounding the injuries, there is one fact that persistently lingers- they keep happening. These things keep happening to this guy. And if history is any guide, Andrew Bynum is unlikely to spend his NBA future leading a dynasty.

Without fail, regardless of talent, injury prone stars, particularly those that get hurt early in their careers, seldom find themselves on teams that do a great deal of winning. This is not to say that a durable star ensures success, but throughout the entirety of NBA history, the inverse relationship between winning and the lack of a durable front line guy is truly staggering:

The 1950s were dominated by the Minneapolis Lakers and basketball’s first superstar, George Mikan. In his first six seasons as a pro (1948-49- 1953-54), five of which ended in Laker championships, Mikan personified durability, missing a grand total of two games. The second best Laker of the era, Vern Mikkelsen, a member of four title winners and another conference champion in 1959, was every bit as reliable, failing to suit up just five times in a decade-long career.

In the 1960s, Red Aurbach’s Celtics not only picked up where the Lakers had left off, but took their dominance to unprecedented and unrivaled heights. The Celtics were unquestionably captained by Bill Russell (who missed 24 games as a rookie, but never more than five in a season again), with Bob Cousy (no more than seven DNP’s in a season), Sam Jones (missed 10+ games twice in 12 years) and John Havlicek (missed more than six games once in 16 years) assuming the role of First Mate at various points.

In the aftermath of the Russell era, the first team to accumulate multiple rings was the New York Knicks. While remembered as the epitome of a singular unit, the Knick had a clear-cut top two in Walt Frazier, who played 74+ games every season prior to his 30th birthday, and Willis Reed, who is synonymous with injury only because of the desire and willingness he displayed in trying to overcome it.

On the short end of Boston’s dominance of the ‘60s and the Knicks mini-run of the early ‘70s were the Lakers, led by the all-universe duo of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Of the legends mentioned already, as well as those we’ve yet to discuss, no two primes were more impacted by injury. Though Baylor did a fantastic job of answering the bell throughout his career, injuries plagued him for much of his NBA days and cost him the 1965 postseason, which ended in a 4-1 Finals loss at the hands of Russell & Co.

West, meanwhile, overcame not only repeated disappointment at the hands of the Celtics but also frequent injury en route to becoming one of the very best two-guards of all time. Four times in his first ten seasons, West was sidelined for 15+ games, three times missing at least 20, and in the spring of 1967, West, like Baylor, missed an entire postseason.

Despite all of this, individually and in concert, they led the Lakers to within shouting distance of championship after championship. With seven Finals appearances in 12 seasons for Baylor and nine in a 13-year run for West, any question about their worthiness of the “champion” tag can be summarily dismissed. With all of that said, however, it is worth noting that these two men- symbols of toughness and competitive spirit though they are-disappointingly tallied only a single championship between them, due (at least in part, we can safely assume) to the fact that much of their legendary careers were spent battling injury.

Not convinced? Let’s run through the years.

Only once in his first 15 seasons did Dr. J take part in fewer than 74 games. Moses Malone played 71+ games in 16 of first 18 pro seasons. In his first eight NBA seasons Larry Bird missed a total of 21 games, while Kevin McHale suited up 77+ times six times in his first seven seasons (both through 1986-87). As their durability began to fade, so did the conference titles.

Twice in his 20-year career, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar failed to take part in at least 74 games (and that 74 was at age 41) – neither after 1978. Magic Johnson did lose 45 games of his second season to a left knee injury, but in the remainder of his first dozen years, Magic took the floor 72+ times on ten occasions.

Like Magic, injury wiped out all but 18 games of Michael Jordan’s second season. However, in 12 other seasons as a Chicago Bull, he missed all of five games, eight times playing a full 82 game slate. Before missing 38 regular season games in 1997-98, Scottie Pippen had played at least 77 games in eight of his 10 seasons, never taking part in fewer than 72. The “least durable” of this lot, Hakeem Olajuwon, missed 88 games in his first 13 NBA seasons, though it’s worth noting that 1985-86 (26 missed) and 1990-91 (14) account for nearly half of this total.

John Stockton? 19 seasons, 22 DNPs- 18 of them in one season. And the Mailman? 10 in 18 years in Utah. Shaq missed plenty of time, though I’ve long suspected that “DNP- lazy” played as a big a role as any injury. Kobe Bryant has turned playing injured (not to be confused with “playing hurt”) into a personal pastime. Tim Duncan has missed 63 games in his 14 seasons- a whopping nine in his first six years. LeBron? Eight seasons, 29 games missed. And Dwight Howard? Seven and three.

You get the picture?

At first blush you might think this a silly exercise, an apples and oranges comparison. Is it really fair to measure young Andrew Bynum against this collection of NBA icons and superstars? I mean he’s just six years in, he’s only 24, it sounds like he’s in great shape (link to Kevin Ding’s recent article), assuming everything’s properly rehabbed…

Stop it. Seriously. Stop.

No job title in NBA history is more synonymous with winning and greatness than “face of the Lakers.” Given the role for which he is being groomed, it’s not unreasonable for Laker Nation to demand more of the star to whom our wagons will be hitched. For more than 60 years- from Mikan, to Baylor, to West, to Kareem, to Magic, to Shaq and now Kobe, the leaders of Laker dynasties have not only helped define the eras in which they star, they’ve been central figures in the shaping of the NBA itself.

I like and root for Andrew Bynum. He is, by all accounts, a really good guy. I wholeheartedly believe every word of praise that appears above. He’s got the tools, both mental and physical, as well as a strong work ethic and, as evidenced by his repeated returns from injury, the determination needed to star in the NBA. Thing is, after this season (assuming he is not dealt), the Lakers will be into Andrew Bynum for seven years and more than $50 million  (with a $16.1 million team option for 2012-13), without so much as one full campaign to show for it, and a major decision looming.

For all of his youth and potential, there is no precedent in NBA history on which to build a case for Bynum joining the pantheon of NBA greats. This is not to say that it can’t happen, but before another half-decade and $80 million are dedicated to him, it’s worth noting out that it never has.

-Emile Avanessian

Darius Soriano

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