There is no shortage of nicknames that the playful Shaquille O’Neal could bestow upon Andrew Bynum, from the Big Successor to Shaq Lite to the Most Dominant Since I Retired.
O’Neal wouldn’t go there. The TNT analyst adopted a more serious, highbrow tone Monday inside Staples Center when asked to assess Bynum’s play this season.
“He’s the best big man in the game right now,” O’Neal said of the Lakers center. “He’s the only big man in the league that’s playing like a true big man.”
Indeed, seven months after he leveled Jose Barea with a forearm in the playoffs, Bynum returned as if he intended to flatten the rest of the NBA.
In his first three games this season, the 7-footer averaged 22.7 points and 17 rebounds, an unsustainable pace but one that reflected Bynum’s ability to be a force on all 94 feet of the court.
Only a month earlier, Bynum had sat before a phalanx of media at the Lakers’ practice facility and announced that his role essentially had not changed since last season, when he became the cornerstone of his team’s defense. “I wouldn’t say that I have more to do,” he said, “but I definitely don’t have less to do.”
His to-do list grew considerably over the next 24 hours. The Lakers traded Lamar Odom to Dallas, creating a need for someone to replace the 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds that Odom averaged last season.
Bynum’s hand went up and hasn’t come down since, catching lobs for dunks and swishing jump hooks. He has also maintained his dominance as a shot-blocker and rebounder, collecting the first 20-point, 20-rebound game of his career this month against Houston.
The formerly erratic scorer has posted double-doubles in eight of 11 games and overall is averaging 16.5 points, 13.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, which would be career highs if he maintained those numbers over the rest of the season.
“He’s just establishing himself, being aggressive, making strong moves, rebounding the ball well and intimidating defensively,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said, “so I’m proud of him and hopefully he’ll be able to keep it up.”
Bynum is also making a quick study of the double teams that have come his way since his early scoring spree, not surprising for a player known to tinker with computers and a fleet of high-end cars that has helped local law enforcement meet its ticket quota in recent months.
While improvising on the court often drives coaches bonkers, the Lakers’ Mike Brown likes it when Bynum employs his own special method of problem-solving. Particularly when it leads to the type of defense Bynum played earlier this month on Utah’s Al Jefferson, who scored only 11 points on five-for-17 shooting and had his shot blocked by Bynum in the final seconds of a loss to the Lakers.
“He kind of made up his own coverage on Al and we kept trying to tell him to get out of it,” Brown said of Bynum, “but he wouldn’t listen to us and whatever he did worked, so I’m going to add it to my defensive playbook. I might call it the ‘Bynum package’ or something.”
Bynum can make the seemingly hopeless plausible. When conditioning coach Alex Ariza started summer pool workouts with the big man, Bynum could barely last two strokes. By the end of their three months together, he could swim seven laps in three minutes.
Ariza realized Bynum was serious about getting in shape when the center followed him to Las Vegas for a week of twice-a-day workouts while Ariza helped one of his boxing clients prepare for a fight. Over these sessions, Ariza said Bynum added 10 pounds of muscle while shaving his body fat to 8%.
Ariza said one of his priorities was strengthening the stabilizing muscles around Bynum’s balky knees, which have forced him to miss 145 games since the start of the 2006-07 season.
O’Neal doesn’t blame Bynum for his extended absences, saying he has been victim to “freak injuries” such as Kobe Bryant colliding with his knee during a game three years ago.
O’Neal said he preferred Bynum to Orlando’s Dwight Howard, widely considered the NBA’s top center and a player the Lakers have long coveted, because Bynum has a variety of post moves that Howard can’t match.
The former Lakers great was not ready to call Bynum a current Lakers great, though O’Neal conceded that Bynum, in his seventh season, was closing in on the franchise’s list of accomplished big men. O’Neal listed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the greatest Lakers center, followed by Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan.
O’Neal, who spent eight seasons with the Lakers and retired last summer as the fifth-leading scorer in NBA history, would presumably be next, though he didn’t say.
“Here it’s all about the championships, it’s all about the stats and it’s all about the persona you bring,” O’Neal said of the aura surrounding the Lakers. “Unfortunately for [Bynum], he’s still under the Black Mamba [Bryant], so it’s still the Black Mamba’s house right now, but he’s playing great and I wish him well.
“Hopefully he will go down as one of the Lakers greats.”
Still only 24, Bynum isn’t ready to call himself “The Big” anything. He’s been a part of two championship teams on a journey that may not involve a move to Orlando if the Lakers decide there’s no need to upgrade at a position where they’re already well stocked.
“My goal is to be a great player,” Bynum said. “I want to be that and I want everything that goes along with that, but I don’t feel any pressure to be the next-best guy or outdo anybody.”