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Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Advanced Basketball Statistics" Do not Tell the Complete Andrew Bynum Story

It sounds patently absurd now (and it sounded absurd at the time), but not too long ago some "stat gurus" suggested that Andrew Bynum was more valuable to the L.A. Lakers than Kobe Bryant; these "stat gurus" crunched some numbers out of context and concluded that Bynum was more efficient and productive than Bryant, failing to understand that Bynum's efficiency was a product of the defensive attention drawn by Bryant. As I explained in a 2010 article, Kobe Bryant's Impact on the Lakers Goes Far Beyond What Statistics Can Measure.

Bynum essentially played the Luc Longley role for the Lakers teams that won back to back NBA titles; his scoring and rebounding averages during those two playoff runs (2009-10) were 6.3/3.7 and 8.6/6.9 respectively. Throughout his Lakers' career, Bynum was limited by chronic knee problems and he repeatedly displayed immaturity on and off of the court. The idea that he was a franchise player--even during his one All-Star campaign, which happened after the Lakers had already fallen from the ranks of the legit title contenders--made no sense, because Bynum has never been physically and/or psychologically equipped to carry a team.

Bynum was never as good as the "stat gurus" suggested--and much of what he accomplished in L.A. resulted not just from the attention that Bryant drew on the court but also the mentoring that Bryant provided:

Although Bynum has made significant strides, his development is clearly still a work in progress; he does not play hard on a consistent basis, he frequently says and does boneheaded things (on and off the court) and he complains about his touches even though he frequently does not battle for good low post position and even though he is far too often befuddled by double teams...

Bryant gets it; he understands what kind of preparation it takes to perform like a champion and he understands the delicate balance between inspiring a teammate to work on his game and beating a teammate down through relentless verbal sniping that destroys camaraderie instead of creating it. Will Bynum use the lessons he learned from Bryant in L.A. to become a veteran leader for the Philadelphia 76ers and a legit number one option on a contending team? That remains to be seen but Bryant provided a nice blueprint for Bynum if Bynum is smart enough and mature enough to use it.

There is an impressive list of players--ranging from the sublime (future Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal) to the ridiculous (legend in his own mind Smush Parker) who played for at least two teams and had the best season of their careers while playing alongside Bryant. Bynum emerged as an All-Star last season and had the best season of his career in part because of Bryant's patient tutelage; it will be interesting to see if Bynum continues the growth process that Bryant helped to start.


There is no stat for drawing double teams and there certainly is no stat for mentoring, so you cannot convince a "stat guru" that these concepts exist, much less that they actually matter--but, nevertheless, these concepts are important elements in the construction of winning teams. The Lakers' record without Bryant this season speaks for itself but it is also worth noting what Bynum has been up to since the Lakers traded him to acquire Dwight Howard. Bynum is gifted with size, strength, agility and other athletic tools but those qualities are not enough to make someone a great player; Bynum's body and mind were well suited for being a role player on Bryant-led championship teams but when Bynum is asked to be the lead guy the results are predictable: his body falls apart and his mind wanders. Bynum did not play a single game for the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2012-13 season and then he displayed remarkable insubordination this season in Cleveland, reportedly shooting the ball from anywhere on the court during scrimmages in blatant disregard for the team concept. The Cavaliers got rid of Bynum, who landed in a perfect situation in Indiana; he can once again be a role player whose contributions could be valuable but will not be essential to the team's success.

Chris Grant, the recently fired Cleveland General Manager who brought Bynum to the Cavaliers, is reportedly a big believer in "advanced basketball statistics." There may not be a number to quantify Bryant's impact on the Lakers in general or on Bynum in particular but there is a number to quantify Grant's impact on the Cavaliers: a 20-33 record that places the Cavaliers 11th in the incredibly weak Eastern Conference.

While some "stat gurus" praised Bynum to the hilt and raved about Bryant's supporting cast during the 2009 and 2010 title runs, I called those squads "among the least talented and least deep champions of the past two decades." Other than Bryant, the top nine players in the 2010 Lakers' rotation (based on total regular season minutes played) were Metta World Peace, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, Josh Powell and Sasha Vujacic.

Vujacic, Powell and Farmar were all out of the league within two years, though Farmar is now back with the Lakers. Brown could barely get on the court for Cleveland's deep 2007 and 2008 teams but he was a key rotation player for the Lakers. Bynum's NBA journey was discussed above. Fisher was the established starter for the point guard-bereft Lakers but he has played a smaller role in most of his other NBA stops. Gasol's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding initially improved after he joined forces with Bryant but his impact sans Bryant has not been impressive and he did not win a single playoff game before teaming up with Bryant. Odom went from being Sixth Man of the Year with the Lakers (which is a little deceptive, in the sense that he often played alongside the starters in crunch time while Bynum rode the bench) to seeing his career completely fall apart as soon as he left L.A. Peace, an All-Star caliber player at his peak, was a solid role player during the Lakers' second championship season and he is now winding down his career as a little-used reserve for the Knicks; Peace was a core member of the Lakers' rotation but now he is, at best, the 10th man for a sorry New York team.

"Advanced basketball statistics" can indicate that Bynum was productive while playing alongside Bryant--but they cannot explain why Bynum was productive, nor can they accurately predict how productive Bynum might be in a different role on a different team; only someone who watches basketball with understanding can make such evaluations. If Bynum and the other 2010 Lakers were as good as so many people said that they were, it is reasonable to assume that at least one of those players would be doing better without Bryant than they did with him. In retrospect, it seems incredible that Bryant won two of his NBA titles with a career journeyman starting at point guard, with Lamar Odom as the team's third best player and with Pau Gasol as the team's second best player. Most NBA championship teams are stacked with multiple All-Stars and/or future Hall of Famers--players who made their names before the championship run--but the only 2010 Laker besides Bryant who might make the Hall of Fame is Gasol, whose career was not on a Hall of Fame trajectory until he teamed up with Bryant.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM

7 comments

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7 Comments:

At Thursday, February 13, 2014 5:24:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

I never thought for one second Andrew Bynum would be good enough to be a franchise calibur player someday. However I did believe he could have been valuable for the Sixers in a bigger role than what he was on the Laker's back to back title teams if he didn'tget injured.

I do agree with you that the Lakers 2009 and 2010 teams weren't as deep as some people say.

Pau Gasol may be a hall of famer some day. As we both know he bennefitted from joining the Lakers to do so.
When you think of hall of famers. You have to think why they're hall of famers.
Lots of them like Pau Gasol were hall of famers because they were fortunate to play on title teams.

 
At Thursday, February 13, 2014 9:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

AW:

Bynum has the potential to play a bigger role than the one that he played for the Lakers but he has chronic physical problems (bad knees) that began early in his career and likely will only get worse. He also has always been a bit of a head case, though being around Bryant mitigated those tendencies to some extent. The combination of physical and maturity issues is why I kept insisting that the Lakers should trade Bynum and I still think that was the right move even though the Dwight Howard experiment obviously did not go as well as Lakers' fans hoped it would go.

It is true that playing on a championship team can help a player's HoF candidacy but I can't think of a player whose HoF trajectory changed more dramatically than Gasol's; Gasol was a one-time All-Star who had not won a single playoff game before he joined the Lakers and I doubt that his FIBA accomplishments alone would have lifted him into the HoF but playing alongside Bryant helped him to receive multiple All-Star and All-NBA selections.

For instance, Dave DeBusschere and Earl Monroe benefited from being traded to the Knicks but both of them would have been HoFers based on their individual merits even if they had not played for New York.

 
At Thursday, February 13, 2014 1:45:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Pau and Bynum are obviously highly overrated by most.

But, when Bynum is healthy, he's very good and a top center. But, he's often hurt. His reg. season #'s are very good starting at age 20. And he was a top 10 player in 2012, and knocking on Dwight's door as top center in league. But, it looks like he might be washed up now.

Pau has been a model of consistency throughout his career, and is still a very good player. He's already very high on all-time nba lists. 100th in points, 68th in rebounds, and 39th in blocks. And likely to finish in top 40, top 35, and top 30 respectively, at very least, when he retires. That merits HOF probably.

It is important to realize, which most don't, that Pau was a 1x AS and 0-12 in playoff games in 7 years with the grizz, though his supporting cast was never that great. But, he still put up AS worthy or at least near-worthy years almost every year. And his opps for his 3 playoff years with the grizz were extremely tough.

At the same time, supposedly much better players didn't fare much better in similar situations. AI was playing with Melo and went 1-8 in 2 playoffs with Denver. And Mcgrady never made it out of first round his entire career, unless you count last year with the Spurs, which he hardly played. And he played with Yao as well. So, we shouldn't be too harsh on Pau.

 
At Thursday, February 13, 2014 11:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Bynum was a worthy All-NBA Second Team selection in 2012, because the selections were based on position and he was the second best center in a weak crop of centers that season--but he was not one of the 10 best overall players in the NBA at that time (or at any other time). His knee problems started very early in his career and it was quite predictable that even if he matured as a person he would never be an elite player because his body simply will not permit that to happen.

Gasol has never been a dominant postseason performer; he has not once averaged 20/10 over the course of one playoff campaign, even during the years that Bryant was drawing double teams and creating huge openings in the lane.

Iverson carried a mediocre Philly team to the Finals and he advanced past the first round multiple times despite never having a great supporting cast.

McGrady never got out of the first round during his prime but he put up HUGE individual playoff numbers, including four straight postseasons during which he averaged 30-plus ppg.

Iverson and McGrady were both good enough to be the best player on a championship team. Gasol is good enough to be the second best player on a championship team if that team has Kobe in his prime as the top dog. Kobe won two championships with key rotation players who struggled to stay in the league right before and/or right after those championship seasons (Shannon Brown, Farmar, Vujacic, etc.). Gasol proved to be a very nice complement to Bryant but Gasol would never have gotten those Lakers' teams to the playoffs on his own, much less won even one playoff series with them.

The Lakers are a disaster area now without Bryant, though the supporting cast is better now than it was when Bryant carried the Lakers to the postseason in 2006 and 2007; Kwame Brown and Smush Parker would not start for this year's edition of the Lakers. Gasol is simply not the kind of player who can carry a team on his own for an extended period of time.

 
At Friday, February 14, 2014 12:20:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

Yes, I know very well how overrated Pau and Bynum are. I would still say Bynum was right there for top 10 in 2012. He was very good offensively and defensively as a center that year, and dominant at times. And yes, he's very immature, but so is Dwight and others. Only the most delusional observers would say he was elite or the leader of the lakers in 2012, especially now.

Mike Miller was the best player that Pau played with in Memphis. And Miller is a full-out career role player. Pau played very well in the playoffs for Memphis. And he stepped up huge at times for the lakers during their finals' run. All I'm saying is that it's not entirely fair to Pau to bash him for this, while the same thing has happened to others who most hold in a higher light. Pau's a nice #2, not great, but nice, and yes, after that, the lakers weren't much to brag about, though most fans/so-called experts would disagree.

Iverson only made it past the 2nd round once, and shot 40.1% in the playoffs for his career. His playoff scoring avg. is awesome, but when you get 27FGA/game, it has to be. He should've shot a lot, but not that much, and 40% is way too low for an entire playoff career to get that much freedom.

The year Philly made the finals in 2001, the East had no legit contenders. Taking into account a harder schedule if they played out west, philly very likely might not have had homecourt advantage in the first round even, and most likely would've been bounced by the 2nd round.

"Mcgrady didn't make it past the first round once." Just let that sentence sink in. How could he not do this even once, even playing in a weaker east for some of his career, and with a top 2-3 center in Yao for several years? At the some point, if he's the supposed superstar you say he is, he needs to step up and accomplish something. No excuse with Yao as a teammate. I'll give him a pass for a few years with Orlando, but for an entire career? Bottom line is that Mcgrady just didn't dedicate himself to the game anywhere near as much as he should've. He was very lazy and basically washed up at 29.

 
At Friday, February 14, 2014 10:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Miller won the Rookie of the Year (with Orlando) and the Sixth Man Award (as Gasol's teammate in Memphis). He averaged 18.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 4.3 apg in 2005-06, numbers that would be good enough to make the All-Star team in some years. Miller is not a "full-out career role player." He is a role player now, at the end of his career, much like Ray Allen is a role player now (which is not to say that Miller was as good as Allen in his prime but just to make the point that players' roles shift during their careers).

The larger point is that Gasol did not play like an elite player in Memphis; he never averaged even 8 rpg in a playoff season and he shot less than .500 from the field in two of his three Memphis playoff appearances, a subpar number for an inside player.

Gasol is a very good player who was very fortunate to play alongside Bryant on two championship teams.

Doug Collins once made the point that Iverson's misses were often like assists, because Iverson drew so much defensive attention that it created offensive rebounding opportunities for his teammates. The 76ers ranked fifth in the league in offensive rebounds in 2001 when they advanced to the NBA Finals. Regardless of what you say about the East that year, Iverson carried that team to within three wins of an NBA title--and they lost to a historically great team in the Finals.

McGrady was a dominant playoff performer throughout his career (not including his final year with the Spurs, obviously). He was a great player and it was not his fault that his teams did not go farther. I don't understand why you think that it is valid to compare him with Gasol. Gasol is a very good player who was not good enough to carry a team very far and who became a good second option to Bryant in L.A.; McGrady was an MVP caliber player who put up dominant numbers in the regular season and the postseason. Would you take Gasol at any point in his career over peak McGrady? If not, then the comparison you are trying to make is irrelevant to this discussion.

 
At Sunday, February 16, 2014 1:35:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

Gasol has yet to win a playoff game sans Bryant. Recall how the Lakers got swept last years at the heels of the Spurs. This is all the more evidence to your point of Bryant's impact and significance to his squad.

 

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