Write with Your Feelings
Below is an exercise in conjecture about Andrew Bynum. As you consider it, please also remember to check out The Baseline, where Shoals has been going in all day, every day. Today should be especially good, as Mr. Bethlehem uses his commodious TSN space to write two columns.
Most likely, few people anticipated that the Game would emerge as such a committed NBA observer when he dedicated his career to the lowest-common-denominator rap in which 50 Cent traffics. And yet, it's undeniable. There are so many examples. A few years ago, on "Beautiful Life," Mr. Taylor spit, "Fo'-dot-six Range/Ben Gordon dip game/That's bullshit/I never been to a Knicks game/Or sat inside of Ms. Chang's/But I watched Tim Duncan in the Olympics go for 45 against Spain." Last year, on "Red Magic," it was: "I'm in L.A. Gasol-in'/But when I'm in New Orleans/You can call it Chris Paul-in'." On "My Life" with Lil' Wayne: "Got a Chris Paul mind state/So I'm never outta bounds." And later, on "Baggage Claim," he again name checked Chris Paul (he is always rapping about CP3) before looking to both the past and future in prophetically asking, "What up, Bynum/How's that playoff knee?/Next timeout/Tell Kobe run the play off me."
So, indeed, Bynum, what up with that playoff knee? Well, so far the results have been mixed. But if Sunday was a game about Andrew performing as he can, and as he has when not impeded by those precarious appendages of his, tonight is perhaps a game about whether or not it's even a relevant inquiry. Tonight we find out not if Bynum matters, but if he knows that he is supposed to matter.
The Game (the rapper, not the sports competition) may not be an NBA thought leader. In fact, it's good that he isn't--in some ways, he is a perfect barometer for what matters to the everyday fan. You usually don't get rapped about if you're a nobody. Nobodies especially don't get rapped about by the Game, an MC so hypersensitive about how he is perceived and so self-conscious about his references that you sometimes pity his therapist while also assuming that you and he would find ample common ground. That he would include a reference to a player who has accomplished little and is best known for summoning Kobe's parking-lot ire stands as testament to just how much is expected of Andrew Bynum. Andrew is supposed to matter.
The trope permeating media since Sunday has been that Andrew Bynum is a key to the Lakers' championship run. If he plays like he did in Game Seven against the Rockets... is the condition upon which the NBA appears to now hinge. It's reasoning with roots in Denver's impressive playoff performance, Denver's imposing front line, and the memory of L.A.'s feeble stand against the Celtics in the 2008 Finals. Similarly, Bynum-as-dispositive-element is presented in the framework of which things must occur to allow for the Lakers' success as a team. Lost amidst these analyses, though, is what the Denver series means for Andrew Bynum, not what Andrew Bynum means for the Lakers. If J.J. Abrams were to direct Andrew Bynum's life, tonight would likely be some kind of wormhole in the space-time continuum through which the future could be seen and at which Andrew's present self and future self would converge to determine who would be the real Bynum.
Ignoring its implications for the greater Los Angeles team, Denver is a unique challenge for Bynum because the Nuggets' front court is a litmus test for NBA significance. To this point, Andrew's knee has mattered to the Game because that knee is considered to be the reason why an NBA star has not yet been born in full. Weighed down by the yoke of his much-touted potential, Bynum has titillated his audience with improvement and flashes of dominance when not injured. One could maybe argue that Andrew, in some ways, is perhaps a better version of Dwight Howard, as the former has obvious room to grow and already possesses a broader range of skills. And yet, because of the injuries, and because he has been learning the NBA, Bynum as we know him is not the Bynum for which we hope. In that respect, we'd like him to be more like Dwight, whom we've already seen flourish (albeit with some obvious cause for concern). Now, finally, we get to find out if that injury, that playoff knee, was worth wasting bars about.
Most young players, with few but awesome exceptions, need three or four years to understand the NBA. They need to explore their abilities in the new landscape, they need to identify who they will be, they need to get used to running into the Charles Oakleys and Tractor Traylors of the world (just ask Danny G). To be blunt, they need to learn how to play against grown-ass men. Andrew Bynum needs to figure out if he can play with grown-ass men on a regular basis, and Denver has them. Luis Scola is a solid NBA player, but when you're being called "That Louis Guy" on PTI, you probably have not yet arrived. And in a post-Yao world where Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry are the Tiny Town Twin Towers, you haven't necessarily been prepared for up to seven games with Nene, Kenyon Martin, and Chris Andersen. More importantly, you haven't yet been tested in a fashion that directly imperils or validates your destiny. (That's a real J.J. Abrams sentence, isn't it? How can destiny be changed? If it could, would it really be destiny? This is where the LOST logo would flash across the screen.)
Andrew Bynum will help us understand tonight if that playoff knee matters, and if he's going to realize the meaningfulness which has been taken as an article of faith, as something to which he is entitled. Nene's girth and persistence will challenge him. Martin's nimbleness and ferocity will challenge him. Andersen's hops and energy will challenge him. Andrew will not be able to escape any of it. A hallmark of this Denver team, particularly in the playoffs, has been the gathering intensity that seems to hang over the court each time the Nuggets walk onto it, this building, palpable tension which ultimately is unleashed in almost feral fashion, with a Denver opponent overwhelmed by the onslaught. Bynum will have to find a way to sustain his energy and his focus as this comes bearing down. Failing that, he will have to decide if he both understands and is willing to undertake that which is required to consistently perform at the heightened level of execution demanded by the playoffs and the attendant greatness which they extract. Win or lose the series, will Bynum emerge chastened and diminished or challenged and hungry? Will he understand why it needs to be the latter? Among the hardest transitions required by the NBA is that from player who can contribute to player who regularly does. It's a process which cannot be accomplished in one evening, but tonight will offer a glimpse into how Andrew will navigate this specific sort of turmoil.
In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne lamented that having ventured out into Gotham's festering crime, he returned keenly aware of what he would have to do, and become, to properly fulfill his destiny as the city's savior. Only, he wasn't sure if he was willing or able to undertake that process of growth. Tonight, Andrew Bynum will wander out into a darkened Gotham. It remains to be seen if he'll come back ready to take on all that's required for success, and if he'll know that he's supposed to. If he does, then we can expect more Game verses about him in the future. If not, should he ultimately just be some balky knees and frustrated shakes of the head, Game will have to find someone else to rap about.