Andrew Bynum is at the center of the NBA as both the key to the championship hopes of a thinner-than-usual Lakers team and the most intriguing potential trade chip in a Dwight Howard deal. And in seven games since his return from suspension, he’s playing quite well on both ends of the floor. His field-goal percentage has dropped a bit (to a still-solid 53.3), but he’s made up for that by getting to the free-throw line more, grabbing a higher percentage of available rebounds than anyone in the league and playing solid defense.
In short: The Lakers have asked the 24-year-old Bynum to do much more on offense, and he has managed to come through without sacrificing much of his efficiency. Los Angeles has played much better on both ends with him on the floor (in limited sample sizes, it should be noted), and his development as an offensive centerpiece has allowed coach Mike Brown to play Bynum as the lone star in otherwise talent-deficient bench units that have at least tread water.
One problem: Bynum is not making productive passes, and as the Orange County Register‘s Kevin Ding noted last week, he is still learning to negotiate double teams. Bynum has only four assists in seven games despite having the ball a ton. Another way to put that: He has assisted on 3.1 percent of the Lakers’ baskets while on the court. Only 11 players have played at least 1,000 minutes in either of the last two seasons and put up an assist rate that low. They’re all big men, and none of them are back-to-the-basket players who hold the ball in the post.
This doesn’t have to be a long-term issue, but it’s an issue right now. Here’s a clip from the second quarter of the Lakers’ 99-83 victory against Phoenix on Tuesday:
Bynum’s intentions are good, but this amounts to forcing it. He has two windows to pass here: First, when Jared Dudley leaves Kobe Byrant at the top of the three-point arc, Bynum has an easy passing lane to Kobe (waving his arms) and a trickier one to Matt Barnes on the left baseline:
He turns his head toward both players and raises the ball, but by the time even those brief movements are complete, the Suns have moved to close both passing lanes. But then another one opens: As Channing Frye moves to cut off the pass to Barnes, Pau Gasol flashes wide open into the paint. Problem: Bynum has gone into scoring mode after initially looking to pass, and he has his back turned to the rest of the floor as he completes a baseline spin. You see the results.
Here’s another Bynum possession gone bad from earlier in the game:
Again: The issue is one of timing and speed. NBA defenses are really good, and passing lanes don’t stay open long. Bynum has a brief chance here to toss a cross-court pass to Andrew Goudelock behind the three-point line, but you can see he’s not quite comfortable making the pass as Goudelock’s defender, Ronnie Price, crashes down for the double team:
Bynum actually dribbles a couple of steps out of the paint to get his bearings, a move that both makes him less of a threat (he’s further from the hoop) and gives Phoenix time to close any passing lanes. Shannon Brown does a decent job here of zoning up on the perimeter, but the pass is there. It’s a tough pass, the kind many elite big men never master. Bynum probably just needs time and experience.
One other thing to note here: The floor is pretty bunched up. The Lakers had surrounded Bynum with Goudelock, Steve Blake, Luke Walton and Metta World Peace. In related news: The Lakers are shooting just 23 percent from three-point range, the second worst mark in the league, and they take fewer threes than the average team. Goudelock is a polished shooter, but he barely plays. The Lakers can’t space the floor, and that makes Bynum’s job harder — and his learning curve sharper.
The good news is that Bynum can make the simpler passes out of double teams — the ones that go to a shooter on his side of the floor, directly in his line of vision:
Bynum gets no credit for this (Kobe does get an assist, thanks to some generous scoring), but this amounts to a hockey assist for the big fella. Note again the spacing issues: Bryant, for all his gifts, is an average three-point shooter, and the aging Derek Fisher is struggling. Still, this is solid play. Bynum backs down until three defenders collapse on him, giving him three perimeter targets from which to choose. Two of them spot up (Bryant and Fisher) while the other (Barnes) makes a sharp cut to the basket that draws Steve Nash away from the perimeter.
One final play, from the fourth quarter:
If this shot goes in, we’d all be saying how smart Bynum was to move faster than usual, anticipate the double team, spin away from it and launch a baseline jump hook. Phoenix does a nice job clogging the passing lanes to the weak side before Bynum goes into shot mode:
Bynum is left with the option of either dishing to World Peace or taking the shot he chooses. You can live with his choice. Perhaps a quicker, more agile big man comfortable going left could have stepped into the paint, drawn even more attention and opened up different passing targets, but that’s asking a lot from a 7-footer who has been closer to 300 pounds than 250 for most of his career.
As Ding noted in that story linked above, this is new stuff for Bynum. There will be growing pains as he learns to read double teams, make fast decisions and throw more difficult passes to cutters in the lane and shooters stationed diagonally from him. The Lakers’ outside-shooting issues will make the process tougher than it should be.
But it’s a process the Lakers are wise to start now rather than later. And if the end result this season is Bynum’s growing more comfortable only with throwing those simpler passes, like the one to Bryant above, that may be enough.