What to do with Andrew Bynum?
LOS ANGELES – Where others might see Andrew Bynum as the latest incarnation of great Lakers centers, Steve Blake and Matt Barnes saw an easy mark. When Bynum challenged them to a 3-point shooting contest after a recent practice, Blake and Barnes were happy to take his money.
Then the shooting began.
Bynum moved around the 3-point line, making shot after shot, leaving some teammates in stitches and Blake and Barnes $600 in the red.
"Ridiculous," Barnes said.
If his teammates are still trying to figure out Bynum, they are in good company. After terrorizing opponents in his first few games this season, Bynum has begun to see double- and triple-teams, something the Lakers haven't seen in the low post since Shaquille O'Neal.
The Lakers' brass also has some figuring to do. Are his frequent injuries the result of bad luck or predisposition? Is his spate of embarrassing behavior (flattening JJ Barea in the playoffs or parking in handicapped spots) a sign of character flaws or an indication that despite being inquisitive, intelligent and articulate, Bynum has as much growing up to do as any other 24-year-old.
Then there is the big one: Is Bynum the franchise's future cornerstone or a bargaining chip for Dwight Howard?
Those questions will begin to be examined more closely this week, when the Lakers measure themselves Thursday against the NBA-favorite Miami Heat, seeing if their center might be the difference between the teams, and on Friday when Bynum measures himself against Howard. They could very well line up against each other next month in Orlando for the All-Star Game, but there's no certainty which side each might play for.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said the team will "absolutely" pick up Bynum's $16.5 million option for next season on the final year of his contract. As for an extension, the Lakers aren't there yet.
"I think we're getting ahead of ourselves," Kupchak said. "Where are we, (15) games into the season? We're trying to get through a strike-shortened season. Those things will be addressed."
Bynum was pleased to hear that the Lakers plan to pick up his option, but says he has received no indication of what their longer plans might be.
Not that he was losing sleep over it.
"I don't know," Bynum said with a smile. "But there's a bank in every city."
If Bynum is fatalistic about his future in Los Angeles – when asked after Monday's win over Dallas if his goal was to be the next great Lakers center, he said, "My goal is to be a great player" – it has been this way for a while.
Each year, as reliably as the seasons change, Bynum is the focal point of trade chatter that would bring the Lakers another star. It began with Jason Kidd (a proposal Kobe Bryant colorfully, ahem, endorsed in a parking lot video). Then it was Chris Bosh, then Carmelo Anthony last winter and earlier this fall there was some speculation he would be dealt for Chris Paul. Now, it has been Howard.
"I haven't worried about it since J-Kidd," Bynum said. "That was the biggest one. Then it was Bosh and everyone else. It doesn't matter anymore. It never really bothered me. It just means you're a valuable player, that somebody wants you."
The truth is that Bynum has been the perpetual prospect. He was just 17 when he entered the draft, so even though the wait for him to fully develop has seemed interminable – a now seven-year itch – it is hard to remember that he is not yet 25. And yet, while he has showed increasing flashes of brilliance – he was a defensive terror last season when the Lakers won 17 of 18 after the All-Star break and he began this season by averaging 22 points and 15 rebounds in his first four games – he is not yet a finished product.
"Once you get to the NBA, everybody expects you to automatically have everything you need and be a man," said Golden State's now-injured center Kwame Brown, the former No. 1 overall pick whom Bynum once backed up with the Lakers. "[Bynum] is still a young guy so you just have to accept a few mistakes. He isn't perfect. But I love his game. I told him the way you're hitting, the way you're spinning out, even when you're not getting the ball, you're constantly attacking and putting pressure on me."
This season, in new coach Mike Brown's offense, he is more often anchored in the low post than he was in the triangle offense, where he would sometimes shift to the free-throw line. The latest learning has come in recent weeks, when teams have begun to send a second, and sometimes third, defender at him in the low post – forcing Bynum into decision-making mode for the first time, he said, since high school.
At times he has looked harried.
"Seriously, that was crazy," said Bynum, after being repeatedly swarmed on his way to 17 points and 15 rebounds against Dallas. "If teams are going to do that, I've got to be able to make them pay because it's really tough to paint bucket right now."
A more curious sight often occurs before games, when Bynum works with assistant coach Darvin Ham. He gets loose by jumping rope, then goes through a series of dribbling moves against Ham, but instead of a basketball he uses a medicine ball, pounding it into the floor.
The point, according to Ham, is to improve Bynum's balance, ensuring he stays low and wide.
"When you're working with medicine balls, if you're not doing whatever technique you need to do properly, you're going to feel it," Ham said.
Bynum gushes about the work with heavy balls and also chides himself for brushing off Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's suggestion that he try it years ago. But it is not unusual for Bynum to embrace the unconventional.
He has undertaken boxing and swimming as off-season training regimens. His hobbies include building computers, he collects (and understands how to disassemble) more than a dozen luxury cars, and what other player might you catch at his locker before a game reading Oscar Wilde?
Neither is he afraid to speak his own mind in a locker room that is dominated by the strong personalities of Bryant and Derek Fisher, the union president, and populated by characters like Metta World Peace. It was Bynum who gave a voice to what was happening when the Lakers melted down in the playoffs last year, saying there was a lack of trust on the court.
That picture of maturity does not always square with Bynum's actions, though. Twice last season he drew suspensions for brutal fouls – including the one of Barea as the Lakers were being eliminated – that appeared to be out of frustration. And in addition to photos of his car spread across a pair of handicapped spots, he was ticketed for speeding and parking violations during the lockout.
"I don't think we're talking about somebody who's committed an atrocious crime," Kupchak said. "Certainly parking in a handicapped parking place is not good for additional reasons – it just doesn't look good because people need those places. So there are things that as a young person, he's going to continue to work on. Now, more so than ever, he's really under the microscope, in particular in this city. He's a smart kid, a thoughtful kid, and hopefully he'll learn."
Of greater concern to the Lakers than his Boy Scout credentials is Bynum's health. Each of the last four seasons has been truncated by knee injuries and he now wears a brace on his right knee that he is sure saved him from a serious injury when he crumpled to the floor late last season against San Antonio.
"He's a good friend to all of us and we know how hard he has worked," said Luke Walton, his longtime teammate. "So, yeah, every time he goes down – whether he gets hurt or not – the whole team, not just him, you lose your breath and you're concerned for him."
The Lakers have been concerned about his health since they drafted Bynum, and their worries have not yet abated.
"Some of the injuries didn't look very natural, somebody fell on him, he stepped on somebody's foot," said Kupchak, whose career was curtailed and nearly derailed by a severe knee injury. "So you could say they were accidents and he was just unlucky, but the fact remains that he's missed a bunch of games. You don't know if he's just unlucky or he's injury-prone."
Kupchak praised Bynum's work ethic in rehabilitation, and said when he's healthy the Lakers have one of the top two or three centers in the league.
Some might go even further.
"I don't know if I'd trade him for Howard, even straight up," said an NBA scout who regularly sees the Lakers. "He's so big and so skilled. There's nobody like him. The question with him is always can he stay healthy?"
The answer to that question carries an expensive price tag for a franchise that is in transition. Tantalizing talent and discomforting risks are simply part of the package with Bynum.
So it is not an easy decision where to place your faith and your money, but as Blake and Barnes learned, it can be costly to bet against him.