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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