Bynum puts team above health

Andrew Bynum dunks against the Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Andrew Bynum won't even attempt to estimate the percentage of his full capacity at which he's playing right now.

Bynum has averaged 7.7 points and 7.1 rebounds in the seven games since suffering a slight tear of the meniscus of his right knee while the Los Angeles Lakers were closing out the Oklahoma City Thunder. It suggests he's operating somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent of what he can be, considering he averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds during the regular season when healthy.

"Ummm, I mean, I'm good enough to play," Bynum said after practice Saturday as the Lakers prepared to fly to Phoenix for Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.

"I don't know the exact number, but I'm good enough."

Bynum has been good enough to play 23 minutes per game since injuring the knee while providing a presence with his 7-foot, 285-pound frame, allowing the Lakers to function at as close to 100 percent as they have all season. The Lakers have reeled off eight straight wins heading into Sunday, seven of them with a balky Bynum in there.

"Andrew is giving us all he's got, and he's playing with soreness and with a tough injury, so when he's effective and he's productive for us in the short amount of time he's out there, it's a big plus," Pau Gasol said. The Spaniard knows full well the opportunities that Bynum's sheer size -- and the attention that opposing defenses have to grant him -- create for the power forward.

Bynum, just 22 years old and the third-highest-paid player on the Lakers' roster, is putting the team ahead of himself and ahead of his health. He's risking the chance at a career full of individual accolades and compensation down the line to get down and dirty for the group searching for a second consecutive championship right now.

In part, it's a selfish decision. But it's not selfish in the true sense.

If Bynum really were selfish, he would be cautious with the multimillion-dollar meal ticket he was born with in the form of one of the biggest bodies on the planet. Of the 436 players on NBA rosters to start the 2009-10 season, only 46 (or 10.6 percent of the league) were 7 feet or taller. Only eight (or 1.8 percent of the league) weighed 285 pounds or heavier.

That rarity allows centers to reap rewards.

If a 7-footer takes care of himself, he has a chance to have a lengthy and lucrative career. Shaquille O'Neal just finished his 18th NBA season and already has banked more than a quarter of a billion dollars in salary. Dikembe Mutombo played 18 years, too, earning more than $140 million throughout his career. Patrick Ewing went 17 years and earned $120 million; Hakeem Olajuwon played 18 years and netted $107 million.

For as dominant as Michael Jordan was, the guard raked in only just north of $90 million in salary in 15 seasons.

A body like Bynum's is a license to print money, but he's putting potential future earning power on the line in just his fifth season.

Bynum has been told the tear in his knee can't get any worse if he plays, but even if the right knee stays the same, he could break down another part of this body while trying to overcompensate for the injury. Remember, the leg bone's connected to the hip bone, right on down the line.

But Bynum's decision to play is selfish for his spirit, not his wallet.

He wants to experience what it feels like to be a true contributor on a championship team. Bynum completely missed out on that chance in 2008, when he sat out the Lakers' run to the Finals with a dislocated left kneecap and could only watch as Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins pushed Gasol and Lamar Odom around. And he averaged a disappointing 6.3 points and 3.7 rebounds in the Lakers' title run last year, at one point losing his starting role to Odom.

"For me personally, it's an opportunity to come out here and really help the team," Bynum said. "I didn't get to do that in Boston a couple years back, and I didn't want to experience that again, which is why I chose to forgo the surgery and just play."

The Lakers, who averaged 126 points on 57.8 percent shooting in Games 1 and 2 of the conference finals, probably could beat the Suns without Bynum playing another minute in this series, but bigger opponents lie ahead in the Finals.

"We know if we're fortunate enough to continue in the playoffs, there will be bigger, more powerful centers ahead," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.

Bynum was the first and, thus far, only Lakers player to say that he is looking forward to playing the Celtics in the Finals. Although his teammates might not appreciate his premature posturing ("Man, it's going to be amazing to play against those guys [Boston] again," Bynum said Saturday), they certainly admire his promise to keep playing.

"I think he's showing maturity, because there are certain injuries that you can't just will yourself through, and knee is one of them," said Kobe Bryant, who knows all too well what it's like to navigate a game with an ailing knee. "You have to be able to adjust and compromise your game a little bit and change your game a little bit, and I think he's been able to do that."

Said Lakers co-captain Derek Fisher, "We're supporting him, and we're not putting any pressure on him to do any more than what he's doing. Just give us what he has."

It hasn't been easy. Bynum openly admits that his knee needs surgery, and it continues to swell from game to game. The Lakers' training staff has tried shrink it back down for almost a month, like somebody blowing a bubble with his gum to the size of a tangerine, then chewing it back down to the size of a pea over and over and over again.

Jackson said the halftimes of the nationally televised playoff games are so long that Bynum has to do special activation exercises just to keep his body prepared to squeeze another half of basketball out of it. Bynum downplays this necessity and doesn't complain about riding an exercise bike in the locker room or doing squats with an exercise ball as anything too taxing, even though his teammates are merely discussing strategy or eating orange slices at the break.

"I'm sure he's frustrated because he wants to do as much as he can and he's not being able to do that now, so I'm sure that's frustrating and it is for any player dealing with an injury, but his commitment to the team is there," Fisher said.

Jackson, never one to heap superfluous praise on an individual, emphasized Bynum's impact on Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire. The Suns power forward is operating at only about 75 percent of his capacity (his scoring is down from 23.5 points in the regular season to 20.5 in the series, and his rebounding average has shrunk from 8.9 per game to 4.5) even though he's fully healthy.

"The size always matters, how people have to shoot over that size," Jackson said. "It's kept Stoudemire from really dominating the inside of the paint. He's taken a couple fouls in there, obviously, he's had to, but he's ultimately been able to come over and shut down some of the lane. The real aspect that we enjoy is the chances for him to get second shots, to get easy baskets inside that are high-percentage situations for him."

One thing is for sure: Bynum sounds like a man who is 100 percent comfortable with the decision he's made.

"It's not about me, it's about the team right now," Bynum said. "If the Lakers win championships, Andrew Bynum is going to be OK. If the Lakers lose championships, that's when things are going to get messed up."

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.