LOS ANGELES -- In Game 2 of the 2010 NBA Finals, the Lakers lost to the Celtics at Staples Center, relinquished home-court advantage, and watched Ray Allen sink a demoralizing eight three-pointers. "But I never had so much fun," said Lakers center Andrew Bynum. With Kobe Bryant fighting foul trouble for long stretches, Bynum became an unlikely focal point of the offense, and he scored 21 points in 39 minutes. "It was one of the only times in a Laker uniform that I felt the pressure on me," he said.
What distinguished the Lakers over the past four years, even more than Bryant, was their dynamic front line. When Bynum was injured, a common occurrence, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom absorbed his minutes. When Bynum was healthy, Gasol and Odom were still more experienced options, trusted down the stretch. The presence of Gasol and Odom, central to two championships, allowed the Lakers to baby Bynum. He rarely felt the pressure because the team was so loaded with reinforcements.
There is no reasonable defense of the Lakers trading Odom to Dallas last month for a draft pick and a trade exception. But in dealing Odom, the Lakers cleared space in the paint for Bynum, and removed part of a safety net he has been desperate to shed. Bynum did not want to see Odom go, but at 24, he believes the developmental phase of his career is over and the Lakers finally seem to agree with him.
After sitting out the first four games of this season, a suspension for the forearm shiver he threw at J.J. Barea in the playoffs, Bynum has emerged like Dwight Howard from a phone booth. He has played only three games, a miniscule sample size, especially for a player with Bynum's injury history. But he has been the most productive center in the NBA, averaging 22.7 points, 17 rebounds, two blocks and an efficiency rating of 32.52, best of any big man. After posting his first 20-20 in a win over Houston on Tuesday night, Bynum muttered: "It took long enough."
The Lakers have waited on Bynum for six years, through the tutorials with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the knee problems that sullied each of the past four seasons, and the traffic violations that kept the California Highway Patrol in business. Bynum's shot on Barea, and the outrage that ensued, made it easy to forget that he actually arrived early last spring, when his defense keyed a 17-1 surge by the Lakers. During that stretch, I went to lunch with Bynum for a feature in the magazine, and he gushed about his new role as the team's designated shot-blocker and rebounder. He worried about losing his niche when Phil Jackson retired.
To the contrary, Mike Brown watched Bynum, and concluded he was still marginalized. He saw Bynum run gingerly down the court, drift away from the low post, and defer to higher profile teammates. "He didn't get a lot of touches," Brown said. The Lakers new head coach devised an offense to feature Bynum and Gasol, nearly identical to what the Spurs used with Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Brown exhorted Bynum to run the floor after misses, set up deep in the post, and demand the ball. On Tuesday night, Bynum backed down Rockets center Samuel Dalembert on the low block, caught an entry pass from Metta World Peace, made three moves, and bulldozed a path to the opposite side of the rim for a reverse layup.
The Lakers have been teased by Bynum before, going back to 2008, when he was recording nightly double-doubles. Then he dislocated his kneecap, Gasol was acquired from Memphis, and Bynum felt as if the Lakers never truly needed him again. They were wise to accumulate front-court depth, given the state of Bynum's knees, and they may be reckless to bank so heavily on him now. If Bynum goes down again, the Lakers are finished. If he remains upright, though, they will likely have the most valuable asset to offer for Howard.
It is unclear whether the Lakers are showcasing Bynum for themselves or the Magic or both. But if they do trade Bynum for Howard, they cannot afford to throw in Gasol as well. They need Bynum to excel so a straight-up swap becomes palatable. Though Bynum's durability does not compare to Howard's, he is younger, taller and 20 pounds heavier than Howard, with more varied post moves and a softer shooting touch. To improve his footwork, Bynum worked out this summer with famed boxing trainer Freddie Roach, but stopped when he heard the lockout would last all season. He claims he is still a bit out of shape -- "I can't breathe," he said after Tuesday's game -- a frightening notion for opponents, since his conditioning will only improve. Before every practice, Bynum performs exercises to help correct his postural alignment, which Lakers trainers believe is a source of his knee trouble.
Bynum is accustomed to trade speculation and has been since '07, when Bryant famously wanted him dealt for Jason Kidd. "Everybody is up for grabs at any time," Bynum said. "You never know where you're going to be when you wake up in the morning." Bynum is a cerebral giant, who builds computers, fixes cars and reads books without pictures. He meets with a sports psychologist over Skype. "One thing I like about him is he has an engine inside of him," Bryant said Tuesday. "He wants to dominate. He has an ambition to be great." Oddly enough, Bynum is probably a better match for Bryant than Howard, whose playful nature and Superman persona recall Shaquille O'Neal.
Sometime soon, the Lakers will have to make a decision on Bynum. Either they try to build a package around him for Howard or pick up his $16 million option for next season and start negotiating an extension. Either way, he is the bridge to the next era of Laker basketball, the pressure finally on, just how he wanted it.