Future looks bright for Bynum, Lakers

Andrew Bynum has missed 79 games combined the previous two seasons

LOS ANGELES – One by one, they strutted onto the Staples Center floor Tuesday night, a parade of stars, all destined to be forever remembered for their roles in the Los Angeles Lakers' famed family.

Khloe. Kim. Even Mama Kardashian.

Jerry West, James Worthy and Magic Johnson would eventually get a few minutes of court time, too. The Lakers lined up their legends on opening night, distributed their three-carat bling, and even the youngest among them seemed genuinely enthused. Bouncing on his toes, smile stretched across his face, Andrew Bynum(notes) beamed as he accepted his championship ring.

"Best gift I've ever gotten," he said.

What goes unsaid: No one around here expects it to be his last. Bynum turned just 22 on Tuesday, and if that doesn't worry the rest of the Western Conference, then this should: He celebrated his birthday with 26 points and 13 rebounds, treating the Los Angeles Clippers' frontline like a piñata in the Lakers' 99-92 victory.

Never has the Lakers' young center looked this good this early.

"I'm healthy," Bynum said. "It feels good to be able to say that."

For all of the offseason acquisitions the Lakers' closest challengers made over the summer – Shaquille O'Neal(notes), Vince Carter(notes), Richard Jefferson(notes), Andre Miller(notes) – only Kevin Garnett's(notes) return in Boston threatens to have a greater impact on the league's balance of power than a whole and hungry Bynum. Bynum missed nearly half of last season with a right knee injury and, despite receiving minimal contributions from him in the playoffs (6.3 points, 3.7 rebounds per game), the Lakers still won the NBA Finals. If Bynum continues to play as he did against the Clippers – and the team otherwise avoids significant injury – then the Lakers have a strong chance of making their championship coronation a repeat event. Or more.

"Our goal should be to break the Bulls' [72-win] record," Bynum said. "I know that's much easier to say than do, but we have that kind of a team."

In the rugged West, that's a stretch. But Bynum gives the Lakers reason to dream. Already, he looks both leaner and faster. After taking a month off to backpack around Europe, he spent much of the remainder of the summer working on strengthening his lower body. In previous years, Bynum weighed close to 290 pounds at the start of camp. This year he checked in at 272.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson isn't quite ready to declare that Bynum has regained the level of dominance he showed just before he injured his knee at the end of January. In the five games prior to the injury, Bynum averaged 26.2 points and 13.8 rebounds. Kobe Bryant(notes) also is quick to caution that "with him, focus is always key."

But Jackson and Bryant do have a better idea of what their 7-foot center is capable of delivering. With Pau Gasol(notes) sitting out Tuesday's game with a hamstring strain, the Lakers repeatedly found Bynum around the rim.

"It's very hard to keep Andrew away from the basket," Jackson said. "That's going to be a force to be reckoned with. Andrew's developed a lot of moves on his own and he has a desire to score, so he's going to score points."

Bynum's defensive game still has considerable room to grow, but no longer do the Lakers wonder whether he'll be able to realize his enormous potential. Now, only one question seems to hang over Bynum: Can he stay healthy?

Even Bynum can't provide a definitive answer. A pair of knee injuries (left and right) have cut short his past two seasons. Both injuries were considered something of a fluke, considering each came after a collision with a teammate. Still, the old GM's adage also holds true: Some players just seem to get hurt.

Bynum's run of bad luck led Forbes Magazine to name him the NBA's most overpaid player earlier this month – even ahead of do-nothings Eddy Curry(notes) and Jerome James(notes).

"Despite putting up meager numbers during his first three seasons, the Lakers, still intrigued with Bynum's 'project' potential, invested four more years and $58 million in him after the 2007-08 season," Forbes' Tom Van Riper wrote.

Never mind that the contract extension didn't kick in until this season. Or that only the first three years are guaranteed. Forbes' point was clear: Bynum hasn't played enough (or well enough) to warrant such money.

The problem with that premise? With young big men, teams are always gambling on potential. Patience isn't just the best prescription, it's the only one. For the Lakers, this very well could be the season they get full return on their investment.

"This is definitely a new beginning," Bynum said. "I'm expecting big things from myself."

The rest of the West would be wise to expect the same. Andrew Bynum walked out of Staples Center with one ring on his right hand and another in his sights. At 22 years old, he's not planning on this being his final celebration.