The NBA has not featured depth of talent at the center position in recent years. As Yao Ming's health failed him and Shaquille O'Neal began to decline, the position became essentially Dwight Howard and a bunch of tall guys. Just look at the All-NBA centers for the last few years. Other than Howard, Shaq and Yao, you mostly have power forwards posing as centers like Amar'e Stoudemire and Al Horford. The only other true center to be selected to an All-NBA team in the past five years is Andrew Bogut, who was third team in 2010.
With Yao and Shaq now retired, Andrew Bynum of the Los Angeles Lakers has taken up the mantle as the next great center. He was selected as the All-Star starter for the Western Conference this season, and indeed he has put up career-best numbers, in large part simply by staying healthy all season. Bynum's tantalizing potential has been apparent for years; enough so that the Lakers gave him a four-year, $58 million extension in 2008 despite the fact that he'd missed 47 games and the entirety of the playoffs that season and at the time he was averaging 7.2 points and 5.6 rebounds for his career. This season, for the first time, he's seemed to put it all together and also managed to stay healthy, as he averaged an impressive 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.
The Denver Nuggets also gave a big contract to a center this summer; that center was Nene, and the Nuggets began to resent the five-year, $67 million contract almost as soon as they signed it. So they decided to rid themselves of the contract at the first opportunity, trading the big Brazilian to Washington at the trade deadline. In return they received JaVale McGee, a younger, rawer center.
There are a lot of similarities between Bynum and McGee, who are currently facing each other in the first round of the playoffs.
Believe it or not, they are the same age (24), with Bynum being the elder by about three months. Since Bynum has been in the league for seven seasons compared to four for McGee, the tendency is to think of Bynum as being much older. But Andrew was in the 2005 Draft, the last NBA draft class in which high school students were eligible, and was a very young high school senior at that. He played his first NBA game on Nov. 2, 2005, less than a week after turning 18. McGee, on the other hand, played two years of college at Nevada before entering the 2008 draft.
They are both long, athletic and talented. They may be the two longest rotation players in the NBA, in fact. Unlike so many other raw, project centers, both Bynum and McGee have some legitimate offensive skills. Bynum has developed a very sophisticated post game at this point, and has a decent touch to about 18 feet (if not to the three-point line) while McGee has a series of hook shots and scoops around the basket that, while still raw, are nonetheless years ahead of other project centers his age, like DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers.
And they are both very, very immature. McGee's lack of maturity tends to manifest itself in relatively harmless ways that show up in hilarious YouTube clips. Bynum's problems are tinted a little darker.
Even in the midst of his breakout year, Bynum has continued to struggle with what it means to be a professional athlete and part of a team. In March, he launched a three-pointer for which he was benched by Lakers coach Mike Brown. More amazing than the shot itself was his defiant attitude afterwards, when he refused to apologize and instead vowed to continue shooting threes. (It's worth noting that in fact he has not stepped behind the arc to take a shot since.) A few days after the three-pointer incident, he told reporters that he doesn't pay attention to what is being said by the coaches during timeouts -- because he is "getting his zen on."
Continuing his tradition of saying weird and controversial things, Bynum had this to say prior to Tuesday night's Game 4 between the Lakers and the Nuggets, a close-out game for L.A. up 3-1:
Close-out games are actually kind of easy. Teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning, so we want to come out and establish an early lead and protect it.
Now, in his defense, Bynum's most recent experience in a close-out game would definitely fit his description: Dallas did after all close out the Lakers 122-86 exactly a year prior to his statements, and Bynum and the Lakers did fold in that game, so maybe he's onto something.
But of course, in this case the quote went right onto the walls of the Nuggets locker room. And we can't know for certain, but it seems as if one of the players inspired not to fit into Bynum's perception of close-out game was McGee.
In a Game 5 the Nuggets had to win in order to stay alive, Denver beat the Lakers 102-99 despite some fourth quarter heroics from Kobe Bryant and a barrage of seven made three-pointers by the Lakers in the fourth quarter.
McGee had the playoff game of his life, and indeed one of the great games of his entire career. He scored 21 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, just the 11th 20/10 game of his career. He made nine of his 12 shots, and in fact all of his nine makes came consecutively. Many came on massive dunks -- off lobs, off drives, off follows -- but he also broke out some of his low post moves, including a finger-roll a la Wilt Chamberlain after one offensive rebound.
McGee's 21 and 14 were better than Bynum's 16 and 11. And McGee's Nuggets team played a great game to keep its season alive and take the series back to Denver, though we can't know for sure how much Bynum's words may have served to motivate them.
Despite this one game, Andrew Bynum is clearly the better center at this stage. He's a shoe-in for no worse than second team All-NBA at the center position when the teams are announced, and could end up on the first team depending upon how much the voters wish to punish Howard for his behavior and injury this season. Bynum is also much bigger than McGee, outweighing him by at least 50 pounds -- and yes, size does matter.
But with a combination of length, athleticism and skills rarely seen, McGee has the potential to be another terrific center in the NBA. He has a lot of work to do, and one of his biggest challenges will always be to remain focused on the basketball court. With the proper motivation, such as Andrew Bynum provided Tuesday night, he can be very, very good.