On Saturday, the venerable Tom Ziller penned a column discussing the peculiar and unsure future for the Lakers and their enigmatic big man Andrew Bynum. This future – difficult to predict before – has suddenly been thrust into a spin cycle of uncertainty following the center’s contemptible actions in the closing minutes of Los Angeles’ season-ending loss to the Dallas Mavericks yesterday. Initial questions will center around the severity of the almost inevitable punishment that will be levied against Bynum, but perhaps the overarching issue will be whether the 23-year-old has a realistic future with his current franchise.
This isn’t a knee jerk reaction to a single act, a moment of weakness and frustration from a young player that manifested itself in the worst way possible. It’s more complex than that, because the last 72 hours yielded at once the best and worst that Bynum has to offer moving forward for the Lakers.
The best postseason performance of his career (15 ppg, 10 rpg) undoubtedly reaffirms what so many already know: he can be an All-Star when performing at full health and optimum effort. But his growing list of transgressions from airing team grievances to the media, to his indefensible cheap shot on J.J. Barea, to his lack of remorse for the aforementioned actions, collectively force us to consider if the once heir apparent in Hollywood can remain as such.
The obvious complication in Bynum’s potential ascendance is of course Kobe Bryant, who for all of his much-dissected errors in judgments with the basketball, remains one of the elite guards in the game and, perhaps more importantly, shows no signs of handing over the reins to the Lakers offense any time soon. As Ziller says, this poses a predictable problem:
There will come a point when Bynum passes Kobe as the most effective Laker, most important Laker. There will come a point when Bynum demands the ball in the pivot, demands more shots, demands a say. There will come a point when Bynum will make a stand, and when Kobe will have to decide whether to remind everyone’s he’s Kobe Bryant, or to stand down. We know Kobe, and we know Kobe has not traditionally been willing to stand down.
The idea of Kobe ceding control to anyone is nearly inconceivable. His famous drive led to the eventual poisoning of the Shaq-Bryant dynasty of the early 2000’s, but Bryant was a different player then, a different person. The fact is that as his physical abilities continue to erode it will be increasingly necessary for him to defer more to his teammates. Game 3 of the Dallas series in which Kobe, Bynum, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol all hoisted between 13 and 16 shots is an aberration in the present, but could be the blueprint of the future, with Bynum ultimately commanding a larger piece of the offense.
In the wake of the 7-footers most recent actions however, it is an unlikely scenario. Kobe’s feelings for Bynum have been a well documented rollercoaster, but having once refused to play second fiddle to a dominant future hall of famer, it’s foolish to predict that he would do so for an inconsistent talent whose emotional instability has been almost as maddening as his inability to stave off injury.
Furthermore, is Bynum capable of manning Kobe’s secondary responsibility as the face of the Laker franchise? It’s a difficult task to ask of any 23-year-old to be sure, but surely Bynum’s recent actions, in his fifth NBA season, have cemented the notion that in the present and near future – no he is not. Tradition matters to this franchise, and so the fact that Laker legend Magic Johnson has twice voiced his criticism of the center on national television in the last week bears significance.
Perhaps in many ways, Bynum’s mysterious and ever-changing persona serves as microcosm for his team. The Lakers remain rich in talent – even if age is becoming a growing concern – but questions of sustained production and leadership are omnipresent, especially now with the expected retirement of Phil Jackson. Bynum has unquestionably tarnished a breakout postseason effort and provided a sour lasting image of the Lakers season. His untimely and unseemly actions may have also permanently altered his place in the franchise’s future plans.
Ultimately, however, final judgment is almost always passed through the lens of production. A massive 2012 season, while not capable of erasing the past, would go a long way to burying it. Lakers fans have been swift to forgive their stars in the past and Bynum has the talent and ability to make them do it again. The question is, will he get the chance?