Andrew Bynum has been through it all in four seasons. The 21-year old center has had to live up to lofty expectations (as Shaquille O’Neal’s long-term successor), defy criticism (by a man called Kobe), and overcome devastating injuries. This post-season, Bynum’s first, he hopes to add another accomplishment to his list: an NBA Championship.
At the beginning of last season, the Los Angeles Lakers streaked to a record of 26-11. Kobe Bryant was playing at an MVP level and Bynum was finally living up to the hype. The Lakers seemed destined to get out of the first round for the first time in three years, and then Bynum tore his meniscus. The injury caused the young center to miss the rest of the season, including the playoffs. In an effort to salvage the 2007-08 campaign, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak traded for Memphis Grizzlies All-Star forward Pau Gasol. The acquisition proved successful as the Lakers made the NBA Finals. However, Kevin Garnett and company were too dominant in the paint, and the Boston Celtics outmuscled the Lakers for their 17th ring.
This year, Bynum enjoyed his best season as a professional, averaging almost 15 points and eight rebounds per contest. Unfortunately, a knee-to-knee collision with Kobe Bryant in early February resulted in a torn MCL. Bynum missed over a third of the season before returning for the last few games.
Even without Bynum for much of the season, the Lakers earned the number one seed in the Western Conference and a match-up with the Utah Jazz. Unfortunately, Bynum struggled in the first round, picking up quick fouls and playing without energy. Lakers head coach Phil Jackson benched Bynum in favor of Lamar Odom. Nevertheless, Los Angeles cruised past the Jazz, winning in five games. In the second round, Jackson’s club was slated for a match-up with the Houston Rockets. Bynum again disappointed in Game 1. Yao Ming scored 24 points and didn't miss a single free throw. Houston won in the City of Angels, 100-92. After the Game 1 shocker, the Lakers won Games 2 and 3 comfortably despite Bynum’s continuing foul trouble.
The fourth game in the series featured a Yao Ming-less Rockets team. The All-Star center suffered a hairline fracture in his left foot and will miss the rest of the playoffs. Even so, Bynum failed to capitlize. Instead, it was Houston point guard Aaron Brooks who shined in Yao's absence. He had 34 points and the Rockets won, evening the series at two games apiece. The following day, question began to arise if Bynum was fully recovered from his torn MCL. Some experts even considered benching him completely, but Jackson decided to start Bynum in place of the gimpy Lamar Odom. In Game 5, Bynum looked comfortable in the starting line-up again and started off with six quick points in the first quarter. In the end, Los Angeles won and Andrew Bynum delivered a solid performance.
Andrew Bynum is the final piece to the Lakers’ puzzle. With solid play, he provides a dominant presence down low, guarding the NBA’s elite post players. After Game 5, it is safe to believe Bynum has returned. Now, the young center can add playoff performer to his list of accomplishments.