I have a friend who is a Lakers fan, "Larry," and as a result I've learned to ignore most of the things he says about his team.
When the Lakers faced the Mavericks last year in the playoffs, it took Larry until midway through the third game to admit that the Lakers might not win that playoff series. The Lakers were ultimately swept, and all he could say about it was that Andrew Bynum didn't deserve to get suspended for knocking J.J. Barea into next week.
In the offseason, Larry guaranteed that the Lakers would trade for both Dwight Howard and Chris Paul by the end of this current season. And though the Lakers certainly tried to make both of those situations a reality, they instead ended up with consolation prizes Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill.
So when Larry said earlier this year that Bynum was the best center in the NBA - better than Howard - I mentally took this sentence and stored it with the others in a box called "crazy biased opinions." After all, Howard has had a stranglehold on the center position ever since Shaquille O'Neal changed his team and nickname for seemingly the fiftieth time. And Bynum is immature, inconsistent, and most people don't think he's even the second best big man on his team. How could Bynum be better than Howard?
Don't look now, but Bynum may have started the transition this weekend.
But it isn't just Bynum's Game One triple-double that's making me see Larry's way. It's a result of paying attention to both star centers all year long. And the 2012 NBA season has shown that while both players are immensely talented, both are young and have made bad decisions, their seasons have gone in different directions. Bynum's stock is higher than it has ever been, and Howard's stock has simply stayed put.
Bynum has been in the league for seven seasons, but he is still seen as a work in progress. That is entirely due to his age. He is 24, still young and malleable. This is also his first season with a new offense, Mike Brown's "Brown and Pound" system, designed to get Bynum involved early and often in the low post. He has thrived in this system, producing more points, offensive rebounds, total rebounds, and minutes per game than he ever has. This extra production was recognized, as Bynum was voted to his first All-Star game.
But we already knew he had the potential to be a bruising offensive player with double-double ability. What has really made me notice is his defensive growth. He averaged nearly two blocks per game this year, which is around average for him. But he did so while averaging less than two fouls per game, something he hasn't done since he was coming off the bench as a rookie. It shows that he is contributing defensively while also being smarter about it. In his post-game interview after Sunday's triple double -- which included an amazing ten blocks -- he said, "Note to self: the more I play D, the better we'll be."
That couplet has the potential to be Bynum's impetus to become the best center in the NBA. And although Bynum has faced issues this year with maturity, and he has had some open feuds with Brown, this realization shows it's possible that he's starting to see the light. If he focuses on playing smarter, defensive basketball, he has a better chance of being the complete package center that Howard has tried to be for years.
Because this idea doesn't strictly have to do with Bynum's ascension. It also has to do with Howard's "Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad 2012." Granted, this season wasn't necessarily terrible because of Howard's production. In fact, Howard's statistics are better than Bynum's, because as of this moment, he is a better player than Bynum. But two things stood out to me this season: Howard still isn't a polished offensive player, and he is killing his reputation because he doesn't understand public relations.
Howard has always relied on being stronger and more athletic than his competition, and it is why he is able to average twenty points a game in the NBA. But the negative side of this is that it has made Howard think it is unnecessary to develop a stronger post game. And because there are only two players in the NBA who can match up with Howard athletically (Bynum and Tyson Chandler), he will likely never try to add this dangerous facet to his game. He has never made a "note to self" to improve offensively because it will make his team better. And it would make his team better; a lot better. If Howard had a legitimate array of post moves like Shaq did, or even like Bynum does, the Magic would have a much more dynamic offensive than "pass it to Dwight, then wait to shoot a three."
Well, they'd probably have that same offense, but it would be more effective.
Not that Orlando has to worry, because Howard won't be on their team much longer. Or will he? There's no way of knowing, because Howard's opinion on the matter changes nearly every day. It has been easier to deal with since the trade deadline passed, but there is still chatter about it every couple of days. It's obvious that Howard doesn't think Orlando is capable of contending, and he would like to be in a better situation.
It's also obvious that Howard doesn't want to actually say it, or else he'll get branded the bad guy. But it's too late for that; this entire drama has hurt Howard's reputation, and it has even impacted his team's performance. The Magic, who are used to home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, stumbled into April with the No. 6 seed. It's hard to argue that the overwhelming drama that punctuated every Magic media session didn't have anything to do with it.
And now, with Howard missing the rest of the playoffs with a back injury, it's hard to tell if he will come back from the injury as dominant as he was. With his physical and mental issues over the course of the 2012 season, the future is still bright for Howard, but it might not be as bright as Bynum's.
When Larry first said that the Lakers would get Howard in the offseason, he told me the trade would be Bynum for Howard straight up. When I asked him a few weeks ago if he would do that trade today, before the Howard injury, he wasted no time in answering, "Not a chance."
If both players continue on their current trends, I might actually agree with Larry for once.