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Andrew Bynum might dominate: Why Pau needs to hurry back

1/8/2010

In the nine Pau Gasol-free games he played to start the year, Andrew Bynum had eight double-doubles. In two full games since Gasol injured his left hamstring Sunday against the Mavs, Bynum has gone for 24/8 and 15/14, certainly respectable enough stat lines.

Of course, how Bynum plays without Gasol available isn't really the problem. Only those living in a cave for the last month (if that's you, welcome back!) missed the decline in Bynum's production when Gasol returned from Hamstring 1.0 11 games into the season. As his role as the featured player in the post disappeared, passivity slowly washed over him and Bynum ceded more and more territory on both ends of the floor. For however long it lasts, Bynum is again a focus. He's done pretty well thus far and I expect it'll continue. Phil Jackson indicated Thursday at practice Gasol could return next week, possibly Sunday with some luck, but should Pau miss another week or more, Bynum could truly thrive.

That, in part, is what concerns me.

Stacked as they are with talent, fundamentally the Lakers are a focused, veteran team filled with guys who have reached a point where the endgame, namely titles, is the overwhelming motivating factor allowing everyone to fit into his role even if it means a hit in statistical production. Kobe, Pau, Odom, Artest, Fish. All vets, well established and respected in the NBA. The exception, in terms of L.A.'s top six players, is Bynum. At 22 years old, like many young players doesn't yet have the maturity to stay in the game mentally when he's not fully involved in the offense.

On the one hand, he has a point: Both Bynum and Gasol often go too long without seeing the ball, given the mismatches each creates in the lane. On the other, he needs to get over it. There's a maturation process Bynum needs to continue working through, and beyond more vanilla contenders like recurrence, my biggest concern about the threat of another long recovery for Pau is how it could delay that process. No matter how well he plays in Gasol's absence, once he returns Pau Gasol is still Pau Gasol, an elite post player and absolutely perfect fit in the Lakers offense. He will have a place in the offensive pecking order, and it'll be ahead of Bynum.

It's a reality Bynum needs to accept, then learn to fight with aggressive play on the glass and in the defensive paint. That's where he can have a greater impact, keeping himself on the floor and involved. (It's not simply a matter of points and rebounds, either. When Gasol returned, Bynum began fouling more in less time on the court, reflective to me of a lack of comfort and confidence in his role.) If he can't, the Gasol/Bynum tandem won't reach its immense potential. They can still be effective together, but something will always be missing. After Sunday's win over Dallas, Bynum admitted his focus tends to rise without Pau on the floor, if for no other reason than he becomes more tangibly engaged in the game:

To his credit, Bynum acknowledges he needs to learn to stay engaged, but knowing and doing, especially for a young player, aren't the same thing.

I like Bynum as a player and person, and think he'll get it. Given the stakes for this Lakers team, it's easy to forget the context in which Bynum fits, how effective he already is, and how much room there still is to grow. All reasonable criticism of Bynum's play should be done with this in mind. Still, each day passing without the two of them on the floor will demand Bynum accelerate a tricky maturation process once Gasol returns. The Lakers can win a title this season without a difference-making Bynum in the middle. They did it last year, after all. But he's what can elevate them to yet another level.

Bynum can learn a lot of things in Gasol's absence, but the one thing, by definition, he can't do is learn to play on the same court as Gasol. For the Lakers, that's probably the most important thing. Meaning ironically, a string of great games from Bynum could end up hindering the Lakers in the long run.