Andrew Bynum’s tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers wasn’t always pretty. But in 2011-12, he was everything they’d envisioned he could become.
The summer of 2011 brought plenty of change in the direction of the Los Angeles Lakers. A brutal second-round sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks had halted their chances at a three-peat and tumbled them down the league’s hierarchy of contenders.
Gone was Phil Jackson into retirement. In his absence, questions persisted about Kobe Bryant‘s ability to succeed without the coach who guided him to his five championships and held the position for all but a single season since 1999.
With the Zen Master no longer present, LA touted Mike Brown as the man to helm the position. Brown was no stranger to championship expectations. The former Coach of the Year compiled a 410-272 record with the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2005-10, including the franchise’s first-ever Finals appearance in 2007.
Bryant would always be the Los Angeles Lakers’ focal point and Pau Gasol the complimentary All-Star. The Dallas series proved that simply wasn’t enough anymore.
Options were limited for improvement through the draft. The same went for free agency that brought in commonplace roster fillers like Josh McRoberts, Jason Kapono and Troy Murphy. Both in their 30s, neither Kobe or Pau was returning with much more to their games.
For the Lakers to reassert themselves in the championship picture, the one wild card in their deck would have to play immensely in their favor. A tall task, but one that could breed incredible results if executed correctly.
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Andrew Bynum had been in LA since he was drafted 10th overall in the 2005 Draft. An imposing seven-foot center with a soft touch around the rim, he averaged 13.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game from his third season until the summer of 2011.
His problem stemmed from the rarity with which he was healthy enough to produce those numbers. Bynum played more than 60 games just once during that stretch, including an absence from the entirety of the 2008 Finals and just 19.0 minutes a game in the 2009 Finals.
There was no guarantee of clean health for the 2011-12 season, especially not in a lockout-shortened 66-game campaign. LA didn’t have another option but to entrust the 24-year-old with the chance to jumpstart a stalled franchise, so Brown embraced it as best he could.
Before his season debut — Bynum was suspended for LA’s first four games after his elbow to J.J. Barea in the conference semis — Brown indicated a larger role was pending for the man in the middle.
“He’s going to see the ball probably a lot more than he did in the past,” Brown said per ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “But he’ll have to be able to do something with it in order to get it and keep getting it.”
Such statements tend to be filled with nothing but air, but Bynum’s first game saw him put up 29 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks in a Lakers win. More importantly, his 18 shot attempts were the most he’d seen since Dec. 12 of 2009.
From that point on, the more Bynum proved his body was capable of withstanding, the added responsibilities fell onto him.
His minutes and shots per game skyrocketed to career-highs of 35.2 and 13.3 a night, respectively. This resulted in career-best marks of 18.7 points — on 55.8 percent shooting — and 11.8 rebounds along with 1.9 blocks per game.
As the Los Angeles Lakers compiled a 20-14 record good for fifth in the Western Conference at the All-Star break, Bynum’s breakout campaign was enough to earn him his first All-Star nod.
His scoring increased to 21.2 on 56.9 percent shooting in the 32 games following the break. This, while also contributing 10.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game helped LA climb up to No. 3 in the west come playoff time.
Bryant was shelved for a pivotal seven-game stretch towards the end of the regular season when LA sat less than three games ahead of the LA Clippers for the third seed.
Without the efforts of one of the game’s best, the Los Angeles Lakers could’ve stumbled. Bynum kept them steady with 23.1 points and 14.1 rebounds per game. LA went 5-2 during this stretch, including impressive victories over the San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets to secure their playoff positioning.
The year-long trek into stardom continued in the postseason and was immediately apparent in Game 1 of LA’s first-round matchup against Denver.
Bynum tied Hakeem Olajuwon and Mark Eaton for the most blocks in a single playoff game with 10. Along with 10 points and 13 rebounds, he recorded the only triple-double of his career in a 15-point victory.
As the Lakers escaped a seven-game series, Bynum was a large reason why by averaging 16.7 points on 51.2 percent shooting with 12.3 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per game.
While LA succumbed to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a five-game second-round series, Bynum’s 16.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game were hardly the determining factors. In a favorable matchup against Kendrick Perkins, perhaps a greater emphasis in the low post could’ve advanced the Lakers to the conference finals.
In a year that saw many unable to handle the rigors of the condensed season, Bynum’s seemingly fragile frame held up surprisingly well despite crossing the 30-minute threshold for just the second time in his career. After serving his four-game suspension, he missed only two games the rest of the way, one of which was a meaningless regular-season finale.
Throughout the 2011-12 season, Bynum was turning heads in a way that jeopardized Dwight Howard’s previously firm grip on the center position’s top billing. Given a more polished offensive game that produced similar numbers in a secondary and at times tertiary role, Bynum’s campaign garnered legitimate support.
Bynum collected the fourth-most votes for the Most Improved Player award — and the third-most first-place votes. And yet with the chance to acquire Howard, LA shipped him off to the Philadelphia 76ers that summer.
He was the star Philly desperately coveted before injuries re-reared their head to the point of no return. Bynum never played a game for the Sixers. After frivolous stops with the Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers netted zero returns, he hasn’t played an NBA game since 2014.
His lone All-Star season didn’t appear out of nowhere but few still saw it coming. He emerged on the cusp of stardom before falling further than he ever had into a state of obscurity.
He was everything the Los Angeles Lakers could’ve hoped for but it wasn’t enough to avoid a second-straight second-round exit. Eight years later, Bynum’s individual peak remains a fascinating footnote in his NBA story.