Since he’s returned from his 4 game suspension, Andrew Bynum’s play has been met with fierce, well deserved praise. He’s been a monster in the middle, controlling the glass, blocking shots and altering shots, and attacking the paint on offense in a manner the Lakers haven’t seen since Shaquille O’Neal manned the pivot. He’s running hard to the rim on both ends of the floor, punishing his man with his big body at every opportunity, and doing (seemingly) everything the coaches are asking of him on both sides of the ball.
Bynum’s work on the glass and defensive effectiveness aren’t that new, though. Last season the Lakers post all-star break tear had a lot to do with Bynum taking greater responsibility as a defender and rebounder. He showed an activity level and commitment to controlling the defensive paint that clearly impacted every game.
What is new, though, is his overall effectiveness on offense. Bynum has shown flashes of this level of play before. He’s always had a certain polish to his game and when that was combined with his sheer size and (still above average) athleticism, the makings of an offensive force were evident. But this season he’s putting it all together. He’s added a little lefty jump hook to his arsenal. He’s moving better off the ball to get in better position to make deep post catches. His moves are still a bit deliberate, but he’s using those straight forward attacks to work counters into his game that keep defenders guessing and off-balance. Bynum’s growth on offense is at the point that even Kobe recognizes that Bynum has become the Lakers 2nd option on offense:
“It seems like it’s changed a little bit,” Bryant said after the Lakers’ 97-90 win over the Golden State Warriors on Friday. “Andrew is thirsty to score and he can score. He has more of a scorer’s mentality [than Gasol], so we’ll take advantage of that.”
However, with that “hunger” comes more responsibility and with more responsibility, more growth is expected. This is where Bynum needs to take the next step. From Kevin Ding:
No doubt Bynum has plenty of moves, via both power and footwork, but what he lacks is the ability to handle double teams. He struggled when presented with that challenge late last season, and he will struggle again with it much of this season – probably more so than even Lakers coach Mike Brown suspects…The best players in the NBA command double teams almost all the time. Once Bynum tore up the Trail Blazers with 7-for-7 shooting in the first half, they went after him in the second half. He couldn’t handle it, shooting 2 of 9 from the field. Just as bad, he had no assists in 20 second-half minutes – indicative of his difficulty in finding open teammates while double-teamed.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Big men are notoriously slow in learning how to deal with double teams at the NBA level. Defensive schemes are complex and weak side rotations are executed by some of the best athletes in the world. Double teams can come from a variety of areas of the court and big men need to learn how to recognize them and adjust. There are differences in how to respond to a guard digging down from up high vs. a wing sneaking in from the baseline vs. a second big man coming with added pressure. Then, of course, there’s also soft doubles and second defenders feinting pressure only to recover quickly to their own man in order to disrupt passing angles.
In a lot of ways big men (or post players in general) - with their backs to the basket and often double teamed from their blind side – are like NFL quarterbacks executing a play action pass where they must turn their back on the defense for a moment and then turn back around and make a full field read to find their WR breaking open. Big men must take a snapshot of the floor, recognize where every defender is, then make the appropriate read based off where the defenders move. Offensive players are then supposed to move to other designated areas based off what their own man does in order to give their big man a passing angle. Learning these skills and getting comfortable with where your teammates will be takes time, even for big men that have extraordinary feel for the game.
What needs to be noted here is that Bynum was showing growth in these areas in season’s past but has regressed some this season. But, when you take a step back, there’s an obvious reason for that: the Lakers are no longer running the Triangle. Because it was the only offense he’d ever played in, Bynum – like every other long tenured Laker – had a comfort level with the famed triple post offense. He knew where his teammates would be AND (just as important) his teammates knew where to go on any given possession when a player was double teamed. Right now, every Laker off the ball looks a bit hesitant on where he should move when a double comes. This, in turn, makes the player actually getting doubled more hesitant on where the ball should go.
The Portland game that Ding mentioned is a perfect example of this. On one play in particular, Bynum caught the ball on the shallow right block and then faced the basket. The double team came and he held the ball high with two hands looking for an outlet. The two Lakers on the weak side stood for a moment and then both cut to the rim hoping to receive a pass from Drew. Drew made the right read but by the time the ball got there, the defense had recovered and the ball got deflected out of bounds.
A possession like the one above is commonplace for the Lakers right now and Bynum’s not the only one being affected. Kobe – the other Laker that frequently gets double teamed – is also struggling more than in past seasons in dealing with the second defender. He’s looking for his standard pressure release and that man isn’t there. He’s making passes to spots on the floor and the ball is going out of bounds or into the hands of a defender. Kobe’s not as indecisive as Bynum, but after dealing with double teams for the better part of a decade that’s only natural.
Ultimately, Bynum has a ways to go as a passer. Some players have a natural passing instinct and lead players open into space rather than waiting for them to break open before a pass is made. Bynum is the latter type but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn to be better at the former. Players like Shaq and Duncan began their careers much the way Bynum has but grew into the type of double team busters that can carry an offense. It will take time, of course, but all steps of growth do. Until then, though, I’m happy seeing him get deep post position and produce easy baskets. I’m happy watching him power through his own man to draw fouls and compromise the integrity of the opposotion’s D.
Though, I must admit, I’ll be happier when he’s hitting the right man out of the double and reading the game more than he’s reacting to it. Because when he’s doing that, you’ll know that his evolution as an offensive force is essentially complete.