The Lakers marvel at Andrew Bynum’s monstrous presence. But they also scratch their heads at his inconsistent effort.
At times, they exercise patience with Bynum’s immature behavior. At other times, they show their annoyance with it.
And with the living contradiction that is Bynum, the Lakers are sending a clear message on how they see him in their future plans. By planning to exercise Bynum’s $16.1-million team option for next season, the Lakers show they’re willing to dip their toe in the pool. And with the Lakers currently mulling over signing Bynum to a long-term deal, they’re showing understandable reluctance in jumping right into the water.
The Lakers used to just worry whether Bynum could stay healthy. Even by playing through the 2011-12 season without a major injury, that concern hasn’t completely evaporated. That’s why Bynum plans to travel to Germany in September to undergo special Orthokine therapy on possibly both his knees, the same procedure Kobe Bryant underwent last summer to treat his surgically repaired right knee.
But those concerns pale compared with the ones regarding Bynum’s behavior. In describing Bynum as the team’s “focal point,” Coach Mike Brown believes that the Bynum variable “can affect whether we win or lose dramatically.”
"He can be a cornerstone to an organization," Brown said. after seeing Bynum post career-highs in points, shooting percentage and minutes in the 2011-12 season. "But you have to remember that Andrew is still learning what he's [eventually] going to be."
The Lakers can’t afford having Bynum go through the same process as he did last season, in which he left the team giddy over his post presence one game and then frustrated over his lack of effort the next. Like it did this past season, it would cost the Lakers a championship. But they also remain cognizant that as immature as Bynum can be, he’ll eventually grow up. Although who knows when that will take place?
In one regular-season game, Bynum became the fifth player in Laker history to grab as many as 30 rebounds. In another game, he threw an ill-advised three-pointer and earned a benching. Bynum opened the playoff series against Denver by tying an NBA playoff record with 10 blocked shots. Bynum finished that seven-game playoff series acknowledging in some form after each loss that he didn’t play with enough effort. The series against Oklahoma City featured a similar scenario where his help on pick-and-roll coverages came in spurts and his aggressiveness in the post hinged on how well the Thunder guarded him.
"He's a good kid," Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. "He's a bright kid. He's his own man. But he listens."
Apparently not enough.
Brown and Kupchak talked with him for 90 minutes last week in his exit interview, a session he unsurprisingly showed up for five minutes late.
"We were just talking about staying mentally strong," said Bynum. "I think it's hard for anybody to focus at all times."
This revelation shouldn’t spark concerns about Bynum’s lack of filter. He made it clear he’s not consumed with public perception or being politically correct. Bynum’s revelation that “I like telling the truth,” is not only refreshing to hear, he genuinely means it.
Instead, Bynum’s admission that he lacked consistent focus should spark concern, because it reinforces his overall immaturity. He’s publicly digged at Brown, he blew off a meeting with Kupchak and he’s stewed on the court when teammates aren’t passing him the ball.
"I'm so important to the game it can inflate the locker room or deflate the locker room," Bynum said. "That's really the biggest change from last year to this year. Knowing that now, I'm going to approach the game in a different way."
Yes, it’s nice to hear Bynum conceding that mistake. It’s nice to hear he’s taking preventative measures this summer on his knees. It’ nice to hear how he talks frequently with Kobe Bryant about how to maintain his drive. It’s nice to hear that Bynum plans to work on his mid-range and turnaround jump shots this off-season as a way to counter double teams.
But the Lakers hardly should feel settled that this past season marks the end of Bynum’s questionable focus. This could just mark just the beginning. Thankfully for the Lakers, they still can decide what direction to take.
What route should they choose? Do the Lakers bank on him maturing? Or do they figure it’s better to cut their losses now before his behavior hurts them more?
Fortunately for the Lakers, they can still control where Bynum fits in with their future. Unfortunately, for the Lakers, Bynum’s unpredictable behavior makes it hard to assess what that future should entail.