Lakers shouldn't pin Andrew Bynum as their franchise player
We're talking about who will serve as the face of the Lakers' franchise, and there's plenty of evidence suggesting there will be an ongoing effort in determining which side prevails. Lakers executive Jim Buss has told other team officials, as reported by Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, that center Andrew Bynum is untouchable in trade talks. Meanwhile, Buss failed to even give Kobe Bryant a head's up about Mike Brown's hire, a decision he only regretted after to the fact in comments made to The Times' T.J. Simers. Bynum made it clear in his exit interview that he wants a larger role in the offense next season, while Bryant immediately fired back that Bynum needs to "fall in line." And though Brown stated in his introductory press conference that "this is Kobe's team," he outlined his vision for the offensive pecking order working out naturally depending on who's playing well.
If only it were that simple. In light of the aforementioned off-season revelations, Lakers author Roland Lazenby penned a column at Hoopshype.com in which he talked to a Lakers insider who said that "Jim Buss is setting up Drew" to become the Lakers' franchise player. We'll have all of next season (if there even is one) to see how this all dynamic plays out, but there's plenty of reasons why it's misguided to cast Bynum as the team's franchise player now or even into the future.
I'm not discounting what Bynum has brought to the team so far in his six seasons with the Lakers. Even with many fans clamoring about whether Bynum will ever become the dominant NBA center the Lakers envisioned when drafting him with their No. 10 pick in 2005, I had argued that everyone would need to exercise patience before reaching a definitive conclusion. Even amid various trade rumors that involved the Lakers shipping Bynum elsewhere, I lauded the organization's refusal to quickly pull the trigger on the young center. And even through his various injuries, I noticed that the Lakers still benefited from his presence because of their distinguishable skill set in having two 7-footers in Bynum and Pau Gasol.
But there are several areas I outline below that point out why it'd be wrong for the Lakers to pin Bynum as their next franchise player.
1. This is still Kobe Bryant's team. Brown made that pretty clear in his introductory press conference and it's a statement no one would usually think twice about. But these are different times for Bryant, who is on the tail end of his career with his contract expiring after the 2013-2014 season. Though Bryant will surely work hard to overcome his various injuries, it's unclear how much he has left in his basketball-minutes-heavy body. And with his NBA shelf life dwindling by the game, it would be smart for the Lakers to find Bryant's successor as the team's franchise player so the transition period is seamless.
But it's not a good idea to take away Bryant's role before he's actually done as a player. Even if he's not as athletic as he once was and has to monitor his minutes as if he were on a limited budget, Bryant still remains one of the league's top players and certainly the Lakers' best player. There may be debate about how clutch Bryant still is, but this debate centers more on how the Lakers offense runs in the final moments of a game than whether Bryant's truly capable of hitting the game-winning shot. Bryant sets the tone in the team's work ethic with his obsessiveness with winning and strict attention to detail. And he still proves to be the main reasons why Laker games are a marquee item to buy.
2. Bynum's ability to stay healthy still remains uncertain. Bynum turned a corner last season in managing to go through the NBA playoffs without a major injury. The team also took steps to help Bynum avoid injury by allowing him to miss the first 24 games so he could fully rehab from his surgically repaired right knee, required him to wear a knee brace and altered the team's defensive scheme so Bynum could stay closer to the basket and minimize his movement. But it'd be far too presumptuous to think Bynum will ever be able to remain injury-free.
Because of that uncertainty, it'd be misguided to pin the Lakers' hopes and dreams on how well Bynum performs. Instead, it'd be more practical to view Bynum as a critical supporting cast member as either the third or second offensive option. One only has to look at last season to realize how the Lakers' front office in overly relying on Bynum backfired. As Coach Phil Jackson observed about the Lakers' front office: "They put all their eggs in one basket" regarding Bynum. That comment came in context to Bynum's prolonged rehab efforts at the beginning of the season, which created a trickle-down effect in causing Pau Gasol to fall to fatigue and Theo Ratliff needing arthroscopic surgery and exposing the Lakers' penny-pinching in refusing to acquire a backup center.
Should the Lakers see Bynum as the main part of their future, that strategy may prove as fleeting and unreliable as Bynum's health.
3. Bynum still lacks leadership qualities. Drew made a huge leap in the 2010-2011 season by proving to be the Lakers' most consistent player in a disappointing playoff run. He largely took ownership of the Lakers' defensive scheme that move them to a 17-1 mark after the All-Star break. And he became more comfortable about expressing his views, such as when he revealed that the team had "trust issues" after the Lakers lost Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinals series against Dallas.
As much as I thought it was necessary for someone to speak out and take ownership of the problems, Bynum's hope that his comments would provide a spark in the Lakers backfired. Everyone, including Jackson, Bryant and Derek Fisher, continuously downplayed Bynum's charge and many in the organization saw Bynum's comments as an example of finger-pointing than actual leadership. As much as he matured in taking ownership of the defense, his inconsistency and frustration with teammates' rotations contributed to the unit unraveling in the postseason. And as much as Bynum made strides offensively, Bryant and Gasol are still more reliable offensive options even if they proved inconsistent in the postseason.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum tries to power his way to a shot against Mavericks center Tyson Chandler in the first half of Game 2 at Staples Center. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / May 4, 2011
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is forced into an awkward shot, and a miss, by Hornets defenders Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor during Game 4 of the Hornets-Lakers 2011 first round series at New Orleans Arena. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / April 24, 2011