Lakers top Mavs: It’s time to celebrate the arrival of Andrew Bynum

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The Lakers and Mavericks did not play a terrific game Saturday night. Neither team shot better than 45 percent from the field, both were turnover-prone, neither could really get into their offensive flow, and both missed plenty of easy, open shots in spot-up situations. Kobe Bryant tried to do too much, again, this time on a bad ankle, and the Lakers very nearly coughed up a lead which should have been considerably more comfortable for most of the second half considering the slap-happy way the Mavericks were rushing things offensively.

But win they did, thanks to Steve Blake coming in and nailing huge crucial threes, some key plays from Ron Artest (remember him?), Pau Gasol doing damage in the post, and some excellent defensive work, particularly on the Mavericks at the rim.

This game can be used as a seminal moment for the Lakers, snapping back from a disappointing loss in Miami, proving that they still have the Mavs’ number after some regular season struggles, and showing they are still on track to reach the Finals. It can be used to illustrate that although Dallas is talented and experienced, and blessed with tremendous depth down low, it may not be enough thanks to the talent gap in the paint.

But really, if you want to know what this game meant? It’s “the moment” for Andrew Bynum. There have been flashes along the way. Signs. Huge games, bigger than this one. Moments where Bynum was the difference maker, the extra piece, the X-factor, other cliches. This wasn’t the biggest game of Bynum’s career, far from it. But the other games for him were proof of what he could do, what he was capable of, what was possible with him.

His performance against the Mavericks was a statement of what he is doing, where he is at, how he is playing.

In short, Bynum has finally, fully, arrived.

Bynum has always had the ability and the hype that goes with it. In 2008, a colleague I respect at the utmost levels stated that Bynum was already the 24th best player in the league. I scoffed and mocked him, not out of denial of what Bynum was capable of, but out of a question of whether he would ever really reach that level of production, consistency and performance. What Tom Ziller saw three years ago is what Bynum is doing now, dominating the landscape on a championship squad and making it to where the Lakers not only win, but win with relative comfort even on nights where Bryant is struggling, a scenario that would have seemed impossible two years ago. Three years ago I wanted to see the proof in the pudding. This season Bynum has served it with crow-flavored custard on top.

The reason for Bynum’s ascension? Simple.  Health. Bynum has suffered through multiple knee injuries each season, even limping through the 2010 Finals with a small tear. The biggest criticism of Bynum has been his work ethic in regards to those knee injuries. Bynum has always missed benchmarks, return deadlines, and suffered recurrences of injuries. He never rushes back to work and instead constantly gives vague and delayed timelines for his return. But once on the floor, he’s a monster.

Bynum’s numbers aren’t out of this world. They’re the stuff that you’d expect from a top ten center, but what’s most notable is that he’s splitting minutes with Gasol and Lamar Odom as part of the longest and most talented team in the league. His offensive production rarely is featured as the center point for the Lakers with Gasol and Bryant circling the triangle. But he’s hyper efficient, posting the best PER of his career since the 2007-2008 season. And with Bryant struggling with age and injury, and the rest of the Lakers in regular season cruise control, Bynum has become something the Lakers can turn to for production and trust in. Quite simply, he’s just bigger than everyone else. More than once per game, Bynum will bail out a teammate’s bad shot by crashing the offensive glass for a vicious putback or tip-in with his freakishly long arms. There’s nothing you can do to guard Bynum. He’s not savvy like Al Horford or relentless like Joakim Noah or even freakishly athletic like Dwight Howard. He’s just bigger and longer than everyone else, and that is honestly the greatest strength of the Lakers at this point. They can simply bat shots back in by playing volleyball on the offensive glass well over the outstretched arms of those trying to box them out.

Bynum’s not the franchise center. Not yet, far from it. But he’s reached the point where he’s playing consistently, able to put in reliable minutes, giving the consistent effort necessary for Phil Jackson to instill more trust in him, and making life a nightmare for opponents. On a night where the Mavericks did a favorable job on both Bryant and Gasol (a combined 12-34 from the field), it still wasn’t enough. Because Bynum was there to be one step faster, a few inches bigger, a little bit better than the depth Dallas has brought in to contend with the champs. 22 points, 15 rebounds, and the thanks of a grateful championship contender.

It took longer than it should have, but finally the real new Western beast down low has arrived.

It’s Andrew Bynum, and he’s no longer a championship afterthought.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.

Sixers hire Elton Brand as new General Manager

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Filling the 76ers vacant general manager position dragged out all summer for one main reason:

They liked what they already had in-house. The Sixers were an especially collegial and collaborative group with their decision making, and if they brought in a big name from the outside — former Cavaliers’ GM David Griffin, or the two guys who went deep into the interview process Utah assistant GM Justin Zanik on Rockets VP Gersson Rosas — it would change that dynamic.

Which is why they have decided to keep this in the family, and will promote Elton Brand from vice president of basketball operations to general manager. It’s a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and confirmed by NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Clark.

Brand, a former Philadelphia player, was the general manager of their G-League team, the Delaware Blue Coats, before becoming the VP of basketball operations. He will replace Bryan Colangelo, who was forced out following a Twitter scandal involving his wife.

There were other title changes within the organization as well.

What this means on the ground is don’t expect any significant changes with the Sixers’ plans — nor should there be. They are banking on Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz — now with a functional jump shot, they hope — to be at the core of a contending team, then next summer they will go big game hunting again for an elite free agent. (There is more pressure to get a deal done this summer before the big extensions for those young stars start to really kick in.) That said, this is a team poised on the brink of a great run.

And if things are going well, why make a dramatic change? Brand can help them on the course already set.

Pat Riley: Dion Waiters not recovered for start of training camp, “unlikely” for start of season

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This is a setback.

When Dion Waiters had ankle surgery 30 games into last season, the hope was that he would be healthy for the start of this season and return to the post All-Star form of 2017, when his hot play (15.6 points per game, 41 percent from three and carrying a heavy offensive load) led the Heat to offer him a four-year contract.

Turns out, that’s not going to happen.

It was Pat Riley who made the announcement, speaking to the media.

Waiters was not healthy last season, and while he averaged 14.3 points a game he was not nearly as efficient — 30.6 percent from three, shooting 39.8 percent overall, a PER of 10.5.

This could move Dwyane Wade into the starting lineup to open the season. Beyond that, the Heat have the guard depth to survive this with Wade and Wayne Ellington at the two, plus Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, Malik Newman, and Briante Weber heading into camp.

Waiters being out also is bad news for the player but could save the franchise money on another front: Waiters receives a $1.1 million bonus if he plays in 70 games this season. If he misses the start of the season, he becomes far less likely to make that threshold.