The Step Back: Bye Bye Bynum

When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Andrew Bynum 10th overall in 2005, they were coming off one of their worst ever seasons. Recording just 34 wins, they’d finished 11th in the Western Conference, missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 1994.

The roster was in a bad place. 2003-04’s experiment, which saw the franchise attempt to extend its dynasty by signing aging stars Gary Payton and Karl Malone to cut price deals, had failed. By the summer of 2005, they were long gone. Shaquille O’Neal had been traded to the Miami Heat and Kobe Bryant had just spent a year languishing alongside Bryan Grant, Devean George, Chucky Atkins and a 36-year-old Vlade Divac. Youngsters Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Luke Walton and Sasha Vujačić offered hope for the future, but the present looked like a dumpster fire of epic proportions.

In desperate need of support, Bryant probably wasn’t expecting all that much of Bynum. At age 17 and 244 days, he was the youngest ever player to be drafted by an NBA team, a year before high school players were stopped from declaring for the draft.

In an indication of how little the franchise expected of their new center, they went out and acquired another later that summer. Former No. 1 overall pick Kwame Brown was brought aboard at the expense of Atkins and Butler, as the Lakers looked to unlock his true potential. The now legendary big man had spent the first four years of his career underachieving with the Washington Wizards. Meanwhile, Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol and Joe Johnson (all of whom were drafted after Brown in 2001) were contributing to the ‘Biggest Draft Bust Ever’ narrative already forming around him.

The Lakers’ biggest acquisition that summer wasn’t Bynum, Brown or even free agent Smush Parker though, it was Phil Jackson, who returned to his role as head coach after a year in the wilderness. His influence transformed the Lakers into a 45-win team, albeit one that was eliminated from the playoffs in the first round after losing in seven games to the Phoenix Suns.

Bynum averaged just 7.3 minutes per game in his rookie year, after becoming the youngest player ever to appear in a regular season NBA game on this day. There was no questioning his character though, as this spat with O’Neal in January 2006 proves:

Bynum caught a break early in his sophomore campaign when both Brown and the Lakers’ other center Chris Mihm missed the start of the 2006–07 campaign due to injury. Out of necessity, Bynum was given starters’ minutes and he made an impact on Opening Night, recording 18 points and nine rebounds against the Suns.

Over the course of the season he played all 82 games, starting 53 while averaging 7.8 points and 5.9 rebounds as the Lakers battled back to the postseason. Again, they were eliminated in the First Round by the Phoenix Suns.

But Bynum had made his mark and began the 2007–08 season in the starting five, helping the Lakers accumulate a 26–11 record before succumbing to a partially dislocated left kneecap part way through January. As team doctors felt the injury would keep Bynum out for the remainder of the regular season, general manager Mitch Kupchak pulled off one of the coups of the decade to help the team get by in his absence. On 1 February, the Lakers sent Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, the draft rights to Marc Gasol and first round picks in 2008 and 2010 to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Pau Gasol.

As ESPN noted at the time, ‘Gasol, averaging 18.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.44 blocked shots in 39 games this season, can fill in at center until Bynum returns in mid-March, then move to power forward.’ Bynum never did return in mid-March though. In fact, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his kneecap in mid-May and was forced to watch on from the sidelines as the Lakers progressed to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics.

Realising just how much they could benefit from his size, the Lakers signed Bynum to a 4-year, $58 million deal ahead of the 2008–09 season. Fully fit once again, he returned to playing starters’ minutes alongside Gasol in the Lakers’ front court. His inside game complemented Pau’s mid-range game perfectly and along with Odom the team boasted one of the best forward combinations in the league. But then, on the final day of January, disaster struck when Bryant fell into Bynum after missing an off-balance bank shot. The big man suffered what was later revealed to be a torn MCL in his right knee, an injury that would keep him out of action for the next 32 games.

When he returned in early April, he did so wearing a knee brace. He averaged just 17.4 minutes per game in the postseason and yet he still made a significant contribution. First, he helped the Lakers defeat Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets in a tight seven-game Western Conference Semifinals series. Then, he helped limit the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard to 15.4 points (he averaged 20.6 in the regular season) in the NBA Finals as the Lakers won out in five games to claim their first title since 2002.

The following season, Bynum made 65 regular season appearances, averaging 30.4 minutes, 15 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. The Lakers were a force to be reckoned with once again, winning 57 regular season games to set up a First Round matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. But in Game 6 of that series Bynum suffered yet another injury, tearing the meniscus in his right knee. Heroically, he played through the pain, averaging 8.6 points and 6.9 rebounds during the Lakers’ run to the NBA Finals. There, they faced the Boston Celtics in a seven-game series that went down to the wire. The Lakers came out on top, but by Game 7 Bynum was running on fumes, contributing just two points and six rebounds in 19 minutes on the floor. Ironically, his most important contribution was inadvertently injuring Kendrick Perkins in Game 6. The Celtics’ center landed awkwardly while trying to haul in an offensive rebound midway through the first quarter after Bynum collided with him, causing him to miss Game 7:

It created another one of those great ‘what if’ moments, as assessed by The Athletic earlier this year. Regardless, the Lakers won a second straight title and Bynum went under the knife that offseason.

Unfortunately, it was the last hurrah for that iteration of the team, as they, like Bynum himself, faded away over the next couple of seasons. Despite making his first All-Star appearance in 2012, he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers that summer as part of a four-team deal centred around Dwight Howard. Due to ongoing issues with his knees, he didn’t actually play for the 76ers though and his career came to an abrupt end in 2014 after brief stints with both the Cleveland Cavalier and the Indiana Pacers.

In 2018, there was talk of a comeback, but to date it’s yet to happen.