Monday, January 9, 2012

State of Laker Nation: Is Bynum better than Howard?

Welcome to the State of Laker Nation kickoff post. Like BockerKnocker's recent State of the Union address on his beloved Knicks, I will be irregularly posting rants and raves (mostly rants) on the state of Laker Nation, complete with a 1 to 5 MAMBINO rating on each of the weekly (or so) issues. The inaugural subject? The ever evolving issue of Dwight Howard in a potential trade for Andrew Bynum.

Long before Chris Paul came and left in two hours time, the Lakers have been involved in trade rumors for Dwight Howard, universally considered the best center in the league. From my end, there's no question. On the defensive end of the court, Howard has led the league in blocks three times, total rebounds six times in his 8 year career, along with three (and counting) Defensive Player of the Year awards, making 1st Team All-Defense each of those years. Though his offense has been much maligned, centers without a scoring repertoire are rarely given 1st Team All-NBA slots; Howard has secured that for the past 4 years running (with no signs of slowing). Throw in the intangibles, such as his gigantic presence in the lane altering other team's offensive schemes and the stability he gives teams knowing how easily he can pick up high percentage baskets, Dwight is the best center in the game, and one of the top 5 to 10 talents in the league.

His probable trade counterpart is Andrew Bynum. "Baby Huey", as my dad constantly referred to him in his early days in the league, has begun to morph into the man all Laker faithful hoped he would be and the rest of the league feared; in 6 games this season, Drew is averaging 18.8 ppg, a staggering 15.7 rpg, two blocks, 54% shooting with only 2.7 fouls per contest. Defensively, he's come into his own, fitting into a Mike Brown system that ranks as one of the best in the league. He has become a rebounder, rather than a tall guy who just gets rebounds, using his height, length and athleticism that he has so often wasted. Offensively, he has become the Kobe Bryant-reported 2nd option on the Lakers, with at least 5 post moves with his back to the basket. At 7' and 285 lbs, Drew is one of the most physically imposing men in the league, and nearly unstoppable on the block. Drew is not without his detriments thought; he still lacks the court awareness to pass out of double teams (he had 5 turnovers against Marc Gasol and a tough Grizz interior D last night) and doesn't have the strength to finish when fouled. However, in my highly considered, non-biased expert (nope) opinion, Bynum is the best offensive center in the league, and the second best man at his position. The Lakers are going to be title contenders because he compliments Kobe and Pau. Without him, this team is nothing more than a first or second round elimination waiting to happen. He is that good and that important in LA.

Bynum's performance so far: 4.5 MAMBINOS

The debate most recently (and here on MAMBINO) hasn't been about Andrew versus Dwight, but rather which competing package would be better for the Magic to take IF they were to trade Dwight to begin with. In the conversation between the Nets package, highlighted by center Brook Lopez and the Lakers potential package leading with Andrew Bynum, I argued that it wasn't even close. Taking into account Brook's recent non-contact foot injury, I think that a discussion isn't even warranted.

(Talk has also been made about whether or not Orlando will even trade Dwight. In order to debunk that rumor, let's look at the Magic. The season itself is young, but despite their 6-3 record, there's not a true NBA fan or observer out there that would watch the 2011-2012 Orlando Magic and say that that team is going to compete for the Eastern Conference crown, let alone a championship. While they defend well (they are in the top ten of nearly all significant defensive statistical categories, excluding rebounding differential), Dwight is surrounded by role-players and specialists. With large contracts tying up Orlando's books and no young prospects to deal, the Magic are stuck with the team they have now. Dwight staying put would most likely be a decision about the extra $20 to $30 million he could make if he resigned, certainly not about winning in the next 3 or 4 years. If Orlando were keep Dwight and not deal him, they are essentially daring Howard to leave money on the table to go play elsewhere; exactly what David Stern was trying to accomplish when he helped negotiate this new CBA to try and create even more competitive balance across the league. In principle, I would applaud Otis Smith for sticking to the system. But as a rational person who can see the writing on the wall, I think Smith should be fired immediately for being such a stubborn asshole.

Whoa. I'm sorry. Way harsh, Ty

There really has never been any debate as to if the Lakers should or should not trade Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard. Why come in second when first seems so easily within your grasp? Dwight is the All-Star and the name, a guy who has led a team to a conference title, won a gold medal and has gotten MVP votes. But at this point in their careers with all the progress that Andrew has made in his game, do all those accolades absolutely preclude the discussion that maybe trading Bynum for Howard might not be worth it? Could Andrew Bynum be...better than Dwight Howard? Let's take a look at the stats:

2011-2012 Bynum: 18.8 ppg, 15.8 rpg, 2 block pg, 0.4 steals pg, 2.6 fouls pg, 3.0 turnovers pg, 53.6% shooting, 54.8% free throw shooting in 34.2 minutes

2011-2012 Howard: 18.6 ppg, 14.6 rpg, 2.4 blocks pg, 1.6 steals pg, 3.1 fouls pg, 3.3 turnovers pg, 59.3% shooting, 45.1% free throw shooting in 37 minutes

Career Bynum: 10.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 0.3 spg, 2.7 fpg, 3.0 topg, 56.9% fg shooting, 68% ft shooting, 24.4 mpg

Career Howard:
18.2 ppg, 12.9 rpg, 2.2 bpg, 1.0 spg, 3.2 fpg, 3.1 topg, 57.8% fg shooting, 59.6 ft shooting, 36 mpg

Dwight has had a better career. Boom, done, let's move on. If the issue in question was if you'd trade Bynum a year ago, four years ago or seven years ago, the answer would clearly be no.

Offensively, there's no contest. Andrew is making his shots with a highly varied offensive repertoire, including the same dunks and face up shots that compose the entirety of Dwight's scoring range. Statistically, there's no discernible difference. But in watching the five games that Andrew's played this year, the versatility that he provides on the offensive end of the ball combined with the imposition he creates physically, makes him a far more difficult cover than Dwight. Yes, I said it.

On the flippity flop, there's no contest defensively. Dwight Howard is a better athlete with a stronger body. I don't even really need to make a case for this; Dwight is one of, if not the best defensive player in the league.

So the question is, do the Lakers even need to trade for Dwight Howard, seeing how well Andrew is developing? The answer They don't have to trade for Dwight. If the Lakers stayed the course with Andrew, they could center their run around one of the best big men in the league (with a declining Kobe and Pau riding shotgun) to more Western Conference titles and perhaps even championships. But just saying they don't have to trade for Dwight doesn't mean that they shouldn't.

The two big elephants (which might not even be a big enough animal analogy here) in the room are Andrew's medical chart and immaturity.

Dwight has missed 8 games in 8 seasons. Andrew has missed nearly 100 games in the last 4 years. Maturity-wise, there's not much of an argument either. Despite being sent to the free throw line the most times 4 of the last 5 years (and that one other year he didn't finish first? Yes, he finished second) by being hacked to death, Dwight has managed to keep his head about him and for the most part remain a classy, respectful player. He is one of the faces of the league. Andrew, on the other hand, just finished a 4-game suspension for a cheap shot on JJ Barea, which followed a series of off-court incidents in which he put off surgery on his knee to go on a European vacation, has been pulled over for speeding numerous times and even managed to double park in a handicapped spot. He is a child.

However, to argue FOR Andrew? Most of his major injuries have been contact-based injuries. The trauma to his limbs no doubt makes him susceptible to further injury going forward, but for the most part everything that's happened to him has been because he made contact with another player.

In regards to his maturity, keep in mind he's 24. Do YOU remember how much dumb shit you did when you were 24? I do, and it involved urination on things. Moreover, Dwight has been the premiere player on his team for 7 of his 8 years on the Magic. Expectations have been hoisted on him since he was selected with the first overall pick in 2004. He's been the face of the franchise, and the focus of the offense. He has been asked to shoulder the load completely, and to lead his team to glory, which he nearly did in 2009, when his team fell to the Lakers in 5 games. He was selected as the starting center for Team USA during the 2008 Summer Olympics, asked to set the tone for the all-important defense demanded by Coach K. Dwight has had to be a leader for his franchise, but for the league and even the nation. He has taken on responsibility from the age of 19, and grown into his role.

Andrew was a project when he came into the league as the youngest player ever to hit the hardwood. Nothing was expected of him as a fat 17-year old draft selection. Before this season, Bynum has asked to be nothing more than a center who defends and rebounds. He has been, at best, the fourth offensive option on 2 title teams. He isn't the face of his team or his city; hell, he hasn't even been the face of the Lakers' front court. Part of the reason why I think Andrew Bynum has never grown up is because no one has ever asked him to. I often find that leaders grow into their roles, stepping into responsibility when everyone counts on them most. Who is to say that Bynum's stunted emotional and mental growth isn't just a side affect of never having to be an adult?

Andrew Bynum's improvements in play and hopefully his improvements as an adult human has actually made a potential trade for Dwight Howard into a discussion rather than a simple given. The train of thought has always been that the Lakers should and need to trade for Dwight Howard. Now, the rationale is that while the Lakers don't need to trade for Howard, they still should. Big difference. At this point, they would only be making the trade because of Dwight's reliability in health and ability to handle the spotlight, not for anything talent related. Never thought I would be able to write that.

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