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April 20, 2012
Emegergence
Andrew Bynum

by Bradford Doolittle

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It's easy to forget that Andrew Bynum is still just 24 years old. He's experienced a lot, and gone through many travails, during a seven-year NBA career that has included growth, sporadic dominance, a couple of championship rings and oh-so-many injuries. This season, the first in which he's been healthy since his second year in the league, Bynum as made The Leap. That's the hardest step of all, from good to great, but in completing it, he may have become the best center in the NBA. For now, anyway.

Bynum has managed to do what only the true stars are able to accomplish, which is take on a larger offensive role without losing any efficiency. Last season, Bynum used just 17.7 percent of the Lakers' possessions while he was on the floor, down from above-average figures the previous two seasons. In the last season of Phil Jackson's Triangle Offense, he deferred more often than ever to Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom while focusing rebounding and defense.

Bynum took full advantage of his offensive touches, however, posting a .606 true shooting percentage. He stood out on the defensive end more and more once his explosiveness returned after offseason arthroscopic surgery before last season. His rebounding and block percentages soared and, according to MySynergySports.com, his on-ball post defense remained as good as ever.

After Jackson retired, Mike Brown came in and installed an offensive design better suited to Bynum's skillset than the Triangle, which requires a certain amount of face-up ability even from its big men. With Odom out of the picture, Bynum and Gasol have become the key components of Brown's emerging power-post attack. The Lakers post up more often, and more efficiently, than any other team in the league, with more than a fifth of their shots coming from plays run through the block. Gasol's 22.3 usage rate is up a bit from last season, but Bynum's has soared to 23.6.

The Lakers struggled on the offensive end during the season's early going, with everything seemingly dependent on 33-year-old Kobe Bryant turning back the clock. Since then, Los Angeles has taken off as its roster has become more attuned to Brown's philosophies. The Lakers are averaging 6.6 more points per 100 possessions than they did before the All-Star break. Bynum has been the key to that as his scoring average has jumped from 16.3 points to 21.4.

Brown's offense features a lot of high-low action and pick-and-roll, so Gasol has been moved around more, with an array of post-ups, ball screens, face-up jumpers and cuts to the hoop among his offensive array. Bynum just posts up -- 55 percent of his looks have come on those plays. Even though Brown's offense used more pick-and-roll than the Triangle did, Bynum has rarely been used in that regard. All the work that Bynum has done over the years with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has paid off and he's become perhaps the best back-to-the-basket scorer in the NBA.

This trend actually began last season as Bynum finally escaped the injury-mandated shackles that had limited him over the previous four years. His improvement from before and after last season's All-Star break was startling, as his rebounding rate jumped 5.7 percent, his true shooting percentage soared and he got to the line more often. He's carried all of those upgrades into this season, only he's applying them more frequently.

Perhaps the best evidence of the changing of the guard in L.A. is this: When Bynum has been on the court without Gasol beside him this season, the Lakers have outscored opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions. When Gasol plays without Bynum, that number drops to 1.6. (When the duo plays together, the Lakers are 4.9 points better, in case you're wondering.)

Overall, Bynum ranks 10th in the league with 9.6 WARP, which is already 2.5 more wins than our SCHOENE projection system forecast for him this season. Much of that is availability. Because of Bynum's history, we predicted he'd play in 51 games this season; he's already appeared in 56. He had some ankle trouble a couple of weeks ago, but that was comparatively minor considering the knee trouble that has cost him so many games over the years. Despite the lockout, Bynum will appear in the third-most games of his seven-year career.

One player that ranks ahead of Bynum in the WARP standings is Dwight Howard, the only center with a better score in our bottom-line metric. Howard of course was frequently rumored to be the apple in the eye of Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, and all of the trade scenarios that floated about over the months involved Bynum being kick out of his only NBA home. For this season at least, Kupchak's inability to pull off a Howard deal is a lucky break for the Lakers as we enter the playoff season. And that's not just because of Howard's off-court dramas and the back trouble that may keep him out until next season.

While Howard's overall play this season has eclipsed Bynum, the latter's post-break dominance has all but eviscerated the gap. Bynum has put up 5.4 WARP since the All-Star game, a number beaten by just four players in the league: Chris Paul, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. Howard is at 5.1 and the gap will only grow larger over the last week of the regular season. Even if Howard was healthy and playing, it's not clear that the Lakers would be better off with him at center. At least for this season.

We might be able to declare Bynum the league's best center at this small point on the NBA timeline, but Howard of course has a much more sparkling and lengthy track record both in terms of performance and availability. While Howard is two years older, Bynum's potential for knee trouble would make it tough to pick his next five seasons over Howard's. Bynum's reign in the pivot may prove to be short, but it's also clear that Howard's time as the default center on the All-NBA first team has ended.

It's been an impressive campaign for Bynum, one that if built upon may mark him as a worthy successor in the Lakers' awesome center lineage, a progression that's included Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal. And he's still just 24 years old.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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