EL SEGUNDO, CA — Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss pulled off Friday what most thought would never happen.
Getting Dwight Howard in a trade? Nope. Giving up on the apple of the VP’s eye — Andrew Bynum? Exactly.
Seven years ago in one of his first major moves as part of management, team vice president Buss convinced his dad Jerry and GM Kupchak to take a major gamble and draft a 17-year-old high schooler from St. Joseph’s of New Jersey who couldn’t stay healthy even then. The Lakers used the No. 10 pick to grab Bynum, hoping for the best and fearing the worst.
In the last seven years they got a mixture of both.
When the 24-year-old seven-footer was healthy and focused, he could be one of the most dominant players in the NBA. He helped the Lakers get to three straight Finals, winning in 2009 and 2010, and showed definite flashes of brilliance. But when he was in the mood to act his age, he was a distraction to his teammates and coaching staff.
It could get so bad that his teammates would publicly campaign for him to be traded, like in the summer of 2007, the Summer of Kobe Bryant’s meltdown, when he was unknowingly being video taped by a fan in a restaurant parking lot.
After another early playoff exit courtesy of the Phoenix Suns, Bryant went on virtually every radio station he could find in order to clobber Laker management and demand a trade.
Leaving an Orange County eatery, Kobe was approached by some fans and asked about a Bynum for Jason Kidd deal that was being talked about at the time. Bryant was asked if he would give up Bynum, he said “Are you (expletive) kidding me? Ship his (expletive) ass out.”
Bryant, of course, didn’t know a fan was video taping the entire exchange from across the parking lot, and within a few hours the video was becoming a rallying cry for Lakers fans who wanted to do anything that would get Kobe to rescind his trade demand. He did, and the Lakers went to the Finals the next season after acquiring Pau Gasol.
As time went on, Bryant’s stance on Bynum softened, praising him often, especially after the Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals. He told reporters that Bynum had been a key to the victory, contributing while playing on a badly injured knee, and generally had good things to say about his center. However, when interviewed by TNT’s Craig Sager at the Olympics Friday after the trade, Bryant talked about how excited he was to have Howard as a teammate, yet never mentioned Bynum’s departure.
Bryant wasn’t the only Laker with conflicting feelings about their former teammate. Ask a player off the record if he felt that Drew would ever outgrow his me-first attitude, many times they’d say probably not. One player even told me that he thought Bynum was playing the game for money. “I don’t think he really likes playing or has a lot of passion for it. He’s doing it because he’s good at it and can make a lot of money.”
Now, that’s not always a bad thing, if you’re able to give a full effort all the time and be a good teammate. Curtis Martin, the New York Jets’ running back enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame last weekend, admitted that he didn’t really have a tremendous love of the game. Yet, he became one of its most outstanding players and was a popular teammate because he gave 100 percent every time he played or practiced.
Bynum, when asked about the possibility of being traded during this past season, responded by saying “banks are in every city” giving credence to the theory he’s in it for the money and that’s about all.
And then there’s the case of the sour attitude he displayed on more than a few occasions, such as his 2011 smashing of Dallas guard JJ Berea during the playoffs, then ripping off his jersey while walking to the locker room after being ejected. And the many times last season when he defied coach Mike Brown, the most public being his reaction to a benching following an ill-advised three-point shot against Golden State. Following the game he told reporters that it didn’t matter what Brown thought, he would “still take 3-pointers.”
So, Bynum’s Laker career — not at all surprisingly — has ended. He’s coming off his best season — 18.7 ppg and 11.8 rpg — as he moves to the Philadelphia 76ers and their coach, Doug Collins.
“Andrew Bynum had a great career here,” said Kupchak after the news conference to introduce Howard Friday. “A few injuries slowed him down, but he was a great player for us. He’s a special player with a bright future.”
He became a champion, an All-Star and an enigma in the past seven years. The only thing he never became was a mature professional. Maybe getting to play near his New Jersey home will facilitate that.
After watching him for nearly every game of those last seven seasons, I wouldn’t bet on it.