Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
After seven uneven years with the Lakers--on and off the court--the undulating emotional tripwire that is Andrew Bynum could be ruled out for the season after playing zero games for the Philadelphia 76ers. It seems that the Lakers and those left and received in his wake of the titanic four-team trade this summer are still affected by the 7 foot center and his sometimes perturbing personality.
After an 80-minute workout, a sweat saturated Andrew Bynum talked to the Philadelphia media while staring straight through them. It was the same faraway look that he had given the Los Angeles media for seven years; a trained, halfhearted sense of etiquette that made him seem patiently aloof. In the Sixers training facility, Andrew was asked repeatedly about the state of his problematic knees, ones that had dampened his playing career from blossoming into full-on super-stardom. Talking with his usual tones of misplaced bemusement, Bynum said "I'll definitely be back sometime this year, I'm focused on getting back and being right versus trying to rush."
As sure as the first part of his statement was, the second seemed to be a very carefully placed caveat on what seemed like a guarantee. Drew's statement was a conflicted as his hair that day, a brilliantly compelling skull half immaculately braided and half out of the Don King playbook. Less than two weeks later, Bynum found himself backtracking, admitting that he might not play at all this season. The Philadelphia 76ers season has been an abject disaster without the big man, falling almost completely out of the playoff picture.
It's been strange to see Bynum give continuous updates himself on what seemingly should be a team issue. John Black, the Lakers PR czar, leads a tight-lipped operation out of Downtown L.A. and El Segundo, keeping roster-related information at a premium. Throughout Drew's tenure as a Laker, the organization gave hazy updates on whatever their center's latest malady was, keeping fans and the media speculating rather than dwelling. It's a testament to just how strong a hand the Buss operation was when seeing just how much commotion Bynum has caused without stepping foot onto the court.
Regardless of what's coming out of the former lottery pick's mouth, the bottom line is that the man hasn't played a single minute of his new team's 56 games this year. He has been sitting out with bone bruises in both knees, and battling chronic soreness and swelling. Bone bruises vary in severity and disability from person to person, but obviously with Bynum, the problem is more than just an inconvenience. He can't yet do any physical activity without pain, which a salve of months-long rest was supposed to help heal. Worse yet, these latest injuries seem to be mostly non-contact based. Though he battled problems all throughout his Lakers career, Bynum's medical absences were all tied to freak on-court contact injuries in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Considering that these injuries appeared during summer conditioning and bowling of all things doesn't bode well for the big man. More than likely, Bynum's enormous seven foot, near 300 pound frame simply isn't equipped to withstand the rigors and stresses that an intensely physical NBA game places on him. There are some who speculate that he may never be able to play a full season ever again.
For the Lakers and their fans, watching Bynum's erratic behavior from afar has been illuminating, comical, and sad usually all at once. With every ridiculous sound byte, we're reminded that "close-out games actually aren't that hard" and with every tale of season-ending bowling expeditions, we're hearkened back to the days of Playmate chicken fights. Before August, we had been watching the world through a Bynum-colored lens, a distorted prism that rewards exceptional athleticism rather than personal responsibility. Without the nightly attachments of double-digit rebounds and a bevy of post moves, it's amazing how inexcusable his behavior is.
What's stunning is that even without playing an NBA minute this year, Andrew Bynum continually affects the Lakers on-court product...or at least, the perception of it.
Out of the four teams in the Dwight Howard trade this summer, it's obvious that the Philadelphia 76ers lie at the bottom of the barrel. The Orlando Magic, though the team that lost the superstar, has seen ex-Philly center Nikola Vucevic develop into legit NBA center, while Moe Harkless remains a solid young prospect. They've successfully bottomed out as one of the worst teams in the league, and will be teeming with first round picks in June. On the flip side, the Denver Nuggets are one of the NBA's very best squads, with a break-neck fast break attack led in part by new acquisition Andre Iguodala.
Meanwhile, the Lakers languish on the fringes of a Western Conference playoff picture, sitting at 29-30 with just 23 left to play. Howard has been a disappointment to say the least, a season rife with play deflated by injury and lackluster energy. D12 simply hasn't been the consensus top-five player he's been for the past three years, the very guy Lakers fans (foolishly) expected him to be, even off of back surgery. The team has needed that version of Dwight all year long--dominating the lane on both side of the floor, gobbling up every rebound and clearing the way for open three point shot after open three point shot. They have seen that guy on some nights, but also a bastardized, halfhearted, molding on others. Howard was supposed to be the last piece to this current Lakers championship puzzle, and the first piece to the next decade's worth of trophies.
Still, even as Howard wildly varies in performance from game to game, with every Andrew Bynum setback, the Lakers and their All-Star center become further and further excused from criticism.
As frustrating as Dwight Howard has been and how surprisingly loud calls have been for the team to cut ties one way or another, the fact that he is a Laker and Andrew Bynum is not is a gigantic coup for Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss. Howard, for all of his faults, is playing through two debilitating injuries and giving the Lakers production. As disastrous as the Lakers season has been, imagine if Bynum was still on the team not playing, Gasol and Hill both were sidelined and Earl Clark were still benched in Orlando. The Lakers stand at 29-30 on March 2nd; that record would be a pipe dream if the August trade hadn't gone through.
With his latest setback, Bynum will now most likely sit out an entire season with two non-contact knee injuries. His year, as Magic Johnson and Bill Simmons noted on NBA Countdown last night, should earn him nothing but a one-year contract going into his first free agency period. Even as tantalizing as his potential is as a franchise-changing big man, the fact his body could not handle a summer of training and rest after just his second full slate of games in his career doesn't bode well for his future prospects.
By contrast, the Lakers have Dwight, who will undoubtedly get at the least a 4 year, $70+ million dollar deal, and at the most, a 5 year, $100 million dollar deal...which he can only acquire from the Buss family. Without Howard in tow, the Lakers couldn't offer that contract to anyone, due to the restrictions of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Even as critics and fans alike debate whether or not D12 will ever regain form to warrant such an enormous deal, there's little doubt that the Lakers must take that gamble. If Bynum were on the Lakers, he'd undoubtedly still be dealing with the same knee issues he's going through right now. Thus, the team would be stuck in the same conundrum that the Sixers are going through at this moment: whether or not to use their cap room on a player that may never suit up for even 65 games in a season again. The difference in L.A. would be that if the Lakers were unwilling to gamble on Bynum, they'd be so far over the cap that they wouldn't be able to sign anyone else.
The prevailing thought going into last off-season was that the Lakers would again attempt to trade for Howard, but if they failed to deal for the best center in the game, they'd still have the second best. Just think: had the deal not gone through, they wouldn't have one of the best centers in the league, but rather, no center at all.
The cynical fan will say that Andrew Bynum--with his immense potential and expiring $16 million dollar deal--could have fetched better prospects in a trade with other teams. The Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks or any other number of young-ish squads with picks and prospects available, as well as a need for a big could possibly have been destinations. But even then, would we all be looking at a team that's better for just this season rather than equipped to compete for the long haul? It's almost impossible to predict considering the infinite possibilities.
But at the same time we laud the front office for a deal that looks better and better by the day, watching Bynum's personality from afar gives us a comparison for the man who took his place. While we shake our heads at Drew's looks of rapt insincerity and words of rehearsed affection, we're also watching Dwight Howard exhibit some of the same behavior. Over and over, Howard speaks of a Lakers tradition and winning championships, and yet, has the same distance in his voice that we've heard from the team's center position for years. It's that same look that had Drew labeled as immature, though perhaps it's just that he didn't care about the team--or basketball--nearly as much as he desired to be wealthy and being great personally no matter what his pursuit. I'm not suggesting that Dwight doesn't care if he makes the team better--I'm suggesting that perhaps he doesn't fully appreciate what it means to play for one of the most storied franchises in sports. Last week, Mason & Ireland over at 710 ESPN expressed the very same sentiments after the memorial of Dr. Jerry Buss. They mentioned that there's a pervading sense that Howard didn't quite connect with Kobe's moving words that this Lakers team is playing for a heritage greater than just a simple season. Even as it's a relief to see the Lakers trade a seemingly junked professional athlete for another that may yet have reached an even greater potential, it's extremely disconcerting to see strong parallels between the two.
This is just a glass half-full look at what's been a season that's fallen massively short of expectations. The state of Andrew Bynum's knees isn't going to affect whether the Lakers make the playoffs, if Dwight's back fully heals or if Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash can hold off retirement for another year. However, the team's present and future prospects are immensely positively affected by the simple fact that he's 2,300 miles away and no longer wearing the purple & gold.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino
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