Is Bynum Lakers’ new leader?

LOS ANGELES — Before the season began, the thoughts about oft-injured center Andrew Bynum’s
role with the Lakers mostly revolved around his ability to stay injury-free.
Without a healthy Bynum, the team had no chance to win a championship in the
post-Phil Jackson era.

No problems so far, as the 24-year-old has played in every game he’s been
eligible for — minus the first four games of the season when he served a
suspension for a flagrant foul against Dallas’ J.J. Berea in last year’s
playoffs. He was also the starting center for the Western Conference in the All
Star Game. He’s averaging 18.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, shooting 58.5
percent, and has become one of the best players in the game.

Now the only thing Bynum has people wondering about is whether or not he’s the
Lakers’ most valuable player — and new team leader.

Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are still outstanding players and serve as the
Lakers’ official team captains, but Bynum has become a third “go to”
guy as well as a team spokesman. Whatever questions a reporter may ask, Bynum gives
direct answers.

On Sunday night after the Lakers’ 102-96 loss to Memphis at the Staples Center,
Bynum was asked why he thought coach Mike Brown kept Bryant on the bench late
in the game when a victory was still a possibility.

“I have no idea what was going on,” Bynum told the Los Angeles Times.
“Obviously, it was something (coaches) wanted to prove. You should ask
those guys about it.”

Bryant was asked the same question and said he wasn’t going to criticize Brown
and basically down-played it, even though Kobe’s history tells you that he was
seething about being benched with the game on the line.

Bynum didn’t hesitate for a moment to throw himself into the
middle of it, making him a reporter’s dream. And a coach’s possible nightmare.

Brown hasn’t said anything publicly about the big man’s penchant for giving his
views on any subject at any time. However, Brown probably prefers that Bynum be
as bland as the rest of the team when it comes to commenting on controversial
subjects.

Bynum also adds legitimacy to his opinions because he doesn’t avoid criticizing
the one person it would be easiest to avoid raking over the coals — himself.
Following the loss to the Grizzlies, Bynum talked about how his 30 points were
overshadowed by his — and his teammates’ — poor play on defense.

“We just kind of showed up and thought we were going to win and we thought
we could do it with offense alone,” Bynum said. “It just wasn’t there
for us. I take responsibility for this one because I had only four boards.
Scoring 30 points on offense is fine, but this team needs me to clog the lane,
get boards and be a defensive presence. We gave up (too many) layups. Our
transition defense was felonious. Horrible.”

And following March 18th’s home loss to Utah, Bynum again took shots
at himself, saying that as the “defensive captain” out there he had
to play more consistently on both ends of the floor, and that he had been
responsible for that loss, too.

He had 33 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks against the Jazz.

It might be ludicrous to say that the seven-year NBA veteran is the leader of a
team with Bryant still performing well, and a four-time All Star in Gasol still
there and designated as captains. But a strong case can be made for Bynum, even
though he still has moments of immaturity, such as defiantly shaking hands with
Houston fans after being ejected during a loss to the Rockets.

For the most part, Bynum is a smart young man with a high basketball IQ. He
understands that for this version of the Lakers to contend, he has to have
dominant games nearly every night. While some people might say that he’s a
loose cannon when he speaks out, he likely realizes that at this point in his
career he can say — and get away with — more than most players.

He’s an All Star, a favorite of the new Buss in charge, Jimmy, and a very
valuable commodity the Lakers can’t win without. He’s even been shown much
respect by Bryant, who just five summers ago profanely pleaded with Laker
management to trade Bynum for Jason Kidd. That gives him a cache not available
to most of his teammates.

The fact that he knows how to use it is extremely impressive.

He seems to relish the idea of being a team leader — on and off the court — despite
the massive responsibilities that go along with it, like playing well every
night and being available to the media. His characteristic of rarely shying away
from a question, no matter how touchy or tricky the subject may be, engenders
the kind of respect one needs to lead in the NBA.

Most young guys don’t step out front because they’re too worried about their
jobs and any negative reaction to what they might say. But most 24-year-olds
don’t have nearly seven seasons in the league, two World Titles and the guy
running the team as the president of their fan club.

This team is slowly turning into Bynum’s Lakers.