Monday, April 9, 2012

State of Laker Nation: The Bynum Situation

(Hello friends - if you're here, you might wonder why this article is our all-time numero uno hit-getter. Well, it's because Bill Simmons of ESPN is, quite frankly, a king maker. In late April, he linked to this article in a mailbag of his, noting why any Laker fan should be worried about relying on Andrew Bynum as a future franchise player. He's not wrong. Check out his fine work that cited MAMBINO and made us even more arrogant than we already are right here)

In his first public comments since being ejected from Friday's 112-107 loss to the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum was unapologetic for the incident.
"I don't have any regrets. Stuff happens," Bynum said after the Lakers' 125-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday. "I was ejected for something that happens every game. People talk. It is what it is."

If you're a Laker fan, that statement should make you want to throw your purple and gold coffee mug straight at your "16x Champion" pennant banner.

On Friday in Houston, Andrew Bynum was hit with a technical in the third quarter of the game for getting in Rockets' center Samuel Dalembert's face after a hard foul. Coach Mike Brown told a still-seething Andrew to cool down and make sure not to get his second tech (and thus, ejected), knowing that they'd need him against an always punchy Houston squad. Almost two minutes of game time later, Andrew threw an emphatic hook shot at the other end of the floor, and with a little extra hop in his step, flew past the Rockets bench and (in his words) fired towards them, "It's going to be a long night for Dalembert." Drew quickly was laced with his second technical, ejecting him from a 84-83 game, in which HE had put the Lakers ahead.

Let's focus on this particular statement. Andrew doesn't really see how he could be at fault for what he's done. He knows what he did, who he did it to, and the reasons he did it. However, what he doesn't seem to understand is that the time and manner of his offense is the key to the public outrage. No, Drew, talking shit during a game isn't always worthy of a tech. Yes, crazy stuff does happen on the court and you can't always help it. But talking in the face of referees that are predisposed to not liking you for your reputation and after you had refreshed their memory not two minutes earlier about said repuation was a bad decision.

The chatter all week in Laker Land is how Andrew Bynum "needs to grow up." In a two week stretch, everyone seems to have taken notice of what those of us that watch all 82 have seen since 2006; the kid is frustrating. Not a week after Bynum got benched for chucking up a three-pointer while the Lakers were in transition on a fast break, and was fined for "conduct detrimental to the team" (translation: being an a-hole), Drew capped it all off with Friday's incident in Houston like a fine truffled dookie on top of a crap sandwich.

Would Kobe have gotten tossed from the game after mouthing off the first time? Would Pau? Hell, would Matt Barnes? Would Metta World Peace? Well, yes, he would, but not the other three, because all those 30-something vets understand that getting ejected from the game doesn't just affect you, but it also impacts the team. Those three understand that you have a responsibility to your teammates and organization who depend on you, and losing your cool is a reflection of your irresponsibility.

Even as the most cowardly and pathetic Laker apologist, a lot of times I am just left speechless with the actions of Andrew Bynum. Not 5 seconds after Bynum got tossed, fellow cowardly and pathetic Laker apologist The CDP sent me an e-mail titled "i want to kill bynum right now." There was no body text. So suffice it to say, even the most informed of us understand, get frustrated, and yes, hate.

I saw dozens of internet bylines this week that read about how Andrew needs to grow up, and do it fast. I've talked to a ton of Laker fans that are incredibly concerned that this guy is going to lead us into the next era of Laker basketball with the sun setting more and more rapidly on Kobe Bean. The Bynum trade scenarios that I thought had been long buried with his first All-Star berth have been brought back with a zombie-like fury. If you google "Andrew Bynum maturity," you get over 90,000 hits.


What's most perplexing to me is that everyone seems to just throw these five words at the problem: "Andrew needs to grow up." I think it goes much deeper than this. "Andrew needs to grow up" is too much of a simplistic solution for much more complex problem.

Yesterday, The CDP put Bynum's "maturity problems" in perspective better than I could:

"Yes, I'm worried about Bynum's maturity, but saying this as a definitive condemnation rather than an issue to be worked out is getting out of control. Shaq was and is an immature piece of shit who was 100 pounds overweight at the end of his playing career. I'm still not sure Kobe is "mature" as much as he's learned to shut up around the media; that guy still leads the Lakers in techs and makes stupid plays and moves that cost us games every single year. BUT...those guys have won a few titles.

Bynum is a relentless worker who has built his game up every year in ways Shaq and Dwight Howard never did. He works his ass off. Yes, he needs to grow up, but he's already a lot more mature than Dwight and he's only 24. The other thing is that Bynum's attitude goes both ways - he has an edge that Dwight doesn't. He really wants to win and Kobe has often remarked about how nice it is to have someone else in the trenches."

This is what really starts to put the "Andrew needs to grow up" argument into question. If you look at Andrew year to year, and were to watch a few games of him, you'll see how incredibly far he's come in regards to his entire offensive and defensive skill set. Coming into the league at age 17, Drew couldn't convert on the block if Jason Kapono's life depended on it. Now, he's one of the best, if not the best post scorer in the entire league. As a 20 year old, I criticized Drew for still looking like a doughy teenager. Now, even after 3 knee surgeries and a dozen setbacks, Bynum has made himself into a physical specimen. When, earlier this season, a double-team was tantamount to an instant turnover, Andrew has, over the course of 50 games seemingly, learned how to pass out of that kind of coverage.

Regardless of what you think of his on-court (or off-court) idiocy, it's really hard to deny how incredibly hard Andrew has worked on his body and his game to become the second best (or some would argue best) center in the league. As The CDP said, Drew wants to win, and if Kobe is supporting that statement, there's a lot of weight to it.

Now compare what I just wrote with Dwight Howard. Dwight has been in the league longer than Andrew, not just as a player, but also as an All-Star. Season to season, D12 hasn't improved his game a quarter as much as Bynum has. There's really no denying that it takes a certain amount of maturity to examine the weaknesses in your game, focus on them and work your ass off to improve. So throwing a "Bynum needs to grow up" blanket statement over his problems really doesn't cover the entirety of it, does it?

What concerns me the most is that I think that Andrew isn't seeing what we're all seeing. For him, taking a three in a game is him "expanding his skill set." For him, chirping towards the other team is just "doing what people do in a basketball game." It's like he's seeing his personal performance on the court in the context of a video game; a one-on-one battle. He knows he has to get better to get to the next level. He seems to think that him winning is intimately tied to how much he produces on the court positively, but not by how much he takes away from it negatively with his actions. Is this a sign of immaturity to not understand how much your actions may or may not affect other people? Absolutely. But what if we can't just tell him to start empathizing with his teammates more? What if it's not even possible?

I've been to a lot of Laker games and one of the most fascinating aspects of being at a game live is that you get to catch a bunch of little different interactions that you wouldn't otherwise see. Of course, my eyes are usually glued to the Lakers bench, especially during time-out team huddles.

What's interesting about Andrew is his relationship with his other teammates. For the bulk of his NBA career, Andrew has been a child in a man's locker room. For the past three seasons, his fellow starters have all been 30 years or older. He was drafted as a 17 year-old, and unless the age restrictions change, will always be the youngest player ever to play in a NBA game. That's reflected in that I've never quite seen him connect with the other Lakers.

In the huddles, I either see Bynum listlessly staring off into space, or joking with a teammate, only to have that guy not reciprocate the laughter. The reaction was actually more akin to how you'd indulge a much younger cousin or old man who told a bad joke. Whereas you'd see Luke Walton (RIP), Matt Barnes, and Ron Artest leaning on each other with a warmth only an actual friendship can generate, I've always seen Bynum treated as someone the other Lakers had to like, rather than someone they actually liked. Going a bit further, I've gotten corroboration from people who've been in the Lakers locker room, saying that while the other guys are getting psyched up for games and staying serious, Drew is playing video games or just being off in his own world.

My fear is that quite frankly, his teammates don't like him. Not because he's an aloof jerk (like Kareem was) or lazy (like Shaq was) or a competitive psychopath who's too hard on his teammates (like Kobe is and Jerry West was). I think they might not like him because he's just different. The guy isn't a compelling speaker, nor is he particularly charismatic. He is much younger than the other core players on the roster and, in my eyes, hasn't gone through the same experiences in his life that these other vets have. Just seeing him on the bench, watching his interviews in the locker room and what his teammates say about him (Pau the other night: "Sometimes I just don't know what's going on in his head"), I get the feeling that maybe he makes all these on and off court mistakes because like anyone who works in an isolated space (and in this situation, it's Andrew's own head), maybe he just doesn't empathize with his teammates. He doesn't have the opportunity to feel that same bond that everyone else in that locker room feels, and thus really understanding the weight of his actions.  Bynum's behavior might be a side effect of him not understanding the consequences of his actions because he can't. There might be a lot of people who just don't buy that argument, but if you were to watch him and the interactions between him, the other Lakers, and the coaching staff, you'll see that there's a disconnect there.

The problem with Andrew Bynum isn't simply just that he needs to "grow up." How do you say "grow up" to someone who's shown that he's just as if not more committed to the idea of a team than almost anyone else on it? He's worked harder at his body and improving his skills than almost anybody except for Kobe. How do you say "grow up" to a guy who wants to win just as bad as the player who wants to win more than just about anyone who ever played basketball? At the same time though, the root of this problem is that Andrew needs to learn how to connect, lead and ultimately galvanize his teammates into following him. And I don't know if that's possible. He's just too different.

Do we need to trade Andrew Bynum? No. You trade the guy who's lazy or doesn't want to break his back to improve. You don't trade the guy who's socially awkward. What Andrew's doing is frustrating, stupid and somewhat demoralizing as a Laker fan. But as hard as it is to say, his heart is in the right place. He's making these infractions because he feels like he needs to do them to become a better basketball player, and for the league to fear him. Sadly, and maybe unknowingly, he's doing so at the cost of his team's aggregate performance. My stance is that he could change, but probably won't. And even with that stipulation, there's no way I'd part with a man of his skill set and drive, no  matter how misguided it sometimes may be.

When Andrew Bynum hears "you need to grow up," he's not hearing that. He's not understanding that people mean you need to see what's happening around you, take in the circumstances and understand how your actions are affecting the situation. All he's thinking is that he's on the court, trying to stay competitive and doing everything he can, even during the games, to get better. He's completely mature in so far as he wants to win and will work insanely hard to be great. He can't see the scope of how important he is to the team because I think his idea of "team" is completely insular, but not in the way of selfishness like Kobe in 2005, or Jordan before 1991. I think maybe what we're all asking for is not for Andrew to grow up, but rather, to become a leader of men. Let's wait this one out, Laker Nation.

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  1. 30 Boards, but 7 for 20 shooting. Maturity ensues.

  2. This is a great post, but it doesn't address one very important question: Why is this sport called "basketball?" A basket is defined as "A container used to hold or carry things, typically made from interwoven strips of cane or wire," hence the hoop/net through which the ball is thrown does not qualify as a basket (it clearly fails to contain anything). Many might argue that during basketball's early years, true closed-bottomed baskets were used, but come on let's be serious: That's just a stupid idea. You'd have to climb up there and take the f*cking ball out of the f*cking basket every. single. time. Who the f*ck would want to play that? Obviously that is no way to design a sport. A far better solution would be to use a hoop where the opening is large enough so that the ball can fly straight through, preventing you from always having to climb up there. Maybe you could then add a net so you could easily confirm when a ball's trajectory has indeed progressed through the hoop. That might be a fun game. It would be called Hoop-Net-Ball, though.