Image by Keith Allison, used under a Creative Commons license.
Image by Keith Allison, used under a Creative Commons license.
The lockout season was supposed to break Bynum. In the 2005 draft, Young Bynum fell to 10th because he had never played a full high school season, never led his team in scoring. But the mediocre high school player persevered, and became one of the most productive centers in the NBA by 2007. Then the injuries started. His left kneecap in 2008. Then, his right knee in 2009. In 2010, he trudged through the Finals with a torn meniscus. He was still good, but appeared cursed by the instrument that made the Lakers gamble on him in the first place. There was something wrong with his massive body, a problem thought to be intrinsic and inescapable. Bynum was “injury prone,” destined to follow Yao Ming out of the league, one quivering, pain steeped step at a time.
Bill Simmons, not so illogically, gambled on that possibility, rhetorically intoning, “How is Bynum gonna get through back-to-back-to-backs?” Andrew Bynum sprained his ankle against the Warriors in April and missed a game because of it. That was the only injury he had this year. He glided through the rest of the season, averaging 26.6 percent more playing time per outing than he had in the previous year. The guy who missed 31 games per season over the last four didn’t just stay healthy, he was healthier than ever before.
Bynum does most of his damage high above the fray, in the thin air where the center lives every day of his odd, alienating life. When I watched him this season, though, I was mostly transfixed by Bynum’s movements in the space he shares with the rest of us. On the floor, his strides were crisp and light, strumming along in a manner that would scarcely tear rice paper. Bynum’s jog was more of a trot, the balls of his feet grazing the hardwood.
It wasn’t always this way. If you look back to Bynum clips from before 2009, when he tore his medial collateral ligament, you’ll witness a gait best described as Frankensteinian. A Henry Abbott TrueHoop piece from 2011 unpacked how LeBron James distributes his weight properly, striking the ground with his forefoot in a manner that reduces stress on the body. Dwyane Wade lands and and breaks with his heel, causing his body to absorb more of gravity’s shock. You can likely guess at which motion is more of an injury hazard.
Andrew Bynum used to hit the floor like Dwyane Wade, his heel smacking the ground in front of the body. It is hard to watch his old jaunt without grimacing at the incredible weight thudding into that battering ram heel. Today, Andrew Bynum’s running differently, his leg below the body, his heels rarely touching the ground. You can see the evolution of Bynum's gait over time in the clip below.
When I asked Lakers trainer Garry Vitti about the foot strike change, he explained that although this had indeed taken place, the evolution of Bynum’s movement “was much deeper.” Vitti elaborated, “Because of his gluteus medius weakness he had was is known as a trendelenburg gait where his glute med couldn’t stabilize his pelvis … with increased strength of his glute he was able to control his pelvis better which translated to him being able to get his body over his forefoot which would allow him to propel himself more efficiently.”
To translate Vitti, Bynum’s weak glutes made it difficult for him to control all that body weight on top of his stride. So stronger glutes helped lead to a more natural, fluid movement. His old way—the trendelenburg gait—sounds like something post-grad backpackers visit, and looks (in its most exaggerated incarnation) like the way penguins would walk if the Southern Ocean was 50 proof. Obviously, it’s not the optimal way to move.
Jay M. Dicharry, director of the SPEED Performance Clinic and the Motion Analysis Lab Coordinator at the University of Virginia, explains further:
"If you are on your right leg, and the left leg drops, it does so because the muscles that are on the outside of the right hip fail to generate enough force to keep the pelvis level. Improving lateral stability at his hip would help produce more force and keep the hips and pelvis more square. This is a lateral plane issue. Plain and simple."
But why did such lateral instability plague the old Andrew Bynum? When shown a clip of the Laker center’s gruesome 2009 MCL tear against Memphis—a play where the big man awkwardly propels off his right foot and left foot in succession, as his torso leans backwards—Dicharry noted the following:
"It looks like he is contacting (the ground) with his trunk leaning back and lateral to the knee; center of mass (body weight) outside the base of support (point of contact) is never a safe position. During this injury, it was not only a lack of stability and coordination on Bynum, but also contact that threw him off. Yes, there is contact in hoops, and players need to prep for it, but bad landing is a typical way to tear ligaments."
While it is nearly impossible to pin causality for an individual muscle tear, Andrew Bynum’s former instability certainly did not help matters. He was also chronically hurt. In contrast, the current, compact player may have just had the most healthful and successful season of his young career.
We’re used to terminology like “freak injury,” or “injury prone” as though these are mysterious, inescapable afflictions, handed down by the gods. Bynum was not supposed to be anything but injured; it was his immutable fate. But what if he isn’t injury prone anymore? What if he built a healthy frame the way he once turned a tabula rasa into an offensive arsenal? For all the criticism of the 24-year-old as “spoiled” or “immature,” Andrew Bynum may have patiently overcome his own body’s petulance. The Lakers once had a young talent, doomed to pursue a learning curve sabotaged by muscle ruptures. They now have a starting All-Star center, capable of playing a full season. Fans largely shrug at the found money, unsure if they can trust Bynum’s knees. Many take the surprisingly healthy season as a license to armchair-trade the growing big man for (currently injured) Dwight Howard. Magic Johnson wanted Bynum traded if the Lakers lost to the Nuggets. Few ask, “Why is he healthy?” or “How the fuck did this happen?”
When I asked Bynum about his new running form, he shrugged and attributed the difference to “just getting healthy,” and “squatting” exercises. Striding with fluidity has been an ancillary benefit of the rehab work; it was never the end in of itself. Or, as Vitti puts it: “We know if we can strengthen weak body parts and increase flexibility of tight body parts that will translate into corrected posters i.e. running, standing and sitting.” For Bynum, corrected running did not engender the improvement. Instead, proof of improvement may be in the running.
I ask Vitti if these functional improvements allow Bynum to stay on the court. The scientifically-minded man responds: “Theoretically, yes. But let's not jinx it.”