Lakers' bright future centers on Bynum

BOSTON – From his seat behind the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench, Andrew Bynum could see Paul Pierce collapse in a pile beneath the opposite basket. Pierce clutched his right knee and, as he continued to lay on the floor, Bynum knew this couldn’t be good for the Boston Celtics.

Bynum knew for the same reason he will spend the rest of these NBA Finals wearing a sport coat on the sideline. Nearly five months earlier, he, too, had found himself sprawled out on the court holding his knee. Bynum hasn’t played in a game since, and while the sight of Pierce being carried off the floor likely rekindled some unpleasant memories for the young center, they weren’t nearly as painful as one look at Thursday’s box score.

The rebounding differential in the Lakers’ loss was 46-33 in favor of Boston. Adding to the disappointment was that the Celtics clinched the victory on a putback dunk when the Lakers failed to block out Kevin Garnett.

“That’s a big part of my job as a center,” Bynum said, “so it definitely hurts seeing your team struggle like that.”

Bynum, however, also knows something else, and that’s why the Lakers’ frustration should be tempered regardless of what happens in the rest of these Finals. With their 20-year-old center returning healthy and hungry next season, aren’t the Lakers’ best days still ahead of them?

“We’re focused on the task at hand,” Lamar Odom said, “but we already know.”

That, of course, is dependent on Bynum fully recovering. He suffered a bone bruise on his left knee and a briefly dislocated kneecap during a game against Memphis on Jan. 13. Though Bynum initially hoped to be back for some of the playoffs, he experienced what he termed “a setback” in April while rehabbing the injury. Three weeks ago he underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove some loose cartilage.

Bynum said he’ll begin running in a month and Lakers officials expect to have him at full speed by the time training camp opens in October. Doctors, Bynum said, also have assured him he “won’t lose a step.”

The Lakers, meanwhile, haven’t slowed much without Bynum. They had the Western Conference’s third-best record on Jan. 13, just a half-game behind the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks, and Bynum’s loss expected to postpone any championship hopes until next season. Instead, the Lakers stunned the league by swiping Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies, giving up only rookie point guard Javaris Crittenton, two first-round picks and the draft rights to Gasol’s younger brother, Marc, in return.

While there is some debate whether the Lakers would have still made the trade had Bynum not been injured – the teams had previously discussed Gasol, but Los Angeles officials were always worried they would have to part with Odom or Bynum – there’s no denying the absence of their young center forced them to aggressively renew talks.

Bynum is already looking forward to a chance to play with Gasol, who rates as one of the league’s best-passing big men. Together, with Odom, they will give the Lakers the league’s longest frontline: a 7-foot center, a 7-foot power forward and a 6-10 small forward.

“It would look pretty intimidating,” Bynum said.

“Size,” Odom said, “matters.”

The trio likely will need at least part of the preseason to adjust to each other. The Lakers typically use their small forward to space the floor and Odom shot only 31.4 percent from the three-point line. There’s also some question as to how long the Lakers can keep the group intact. By acquiring Gasol, owner Jerry Buss committed himself to an extra $90 million in salary and future luxury-tax payments, and Odom will be a free agent at the end of next season.

Regardless, these are type of problems most teams would love to have. The Lakers are one of the league’s most profitable franchises and Buss hasn’t shown to be one to break apart a championship-worthy roster. When the Lakers reached the Finals four years ago rife with dysfunction, there was still talk of bringing back that group intact, Shaquille O’Neal included, if the team had won the title.

Kobe Bryant already thinks the Lakers will be “much, much improved” with Bynum returning next season, and that’s saying something considering Bryant was ready to put his young center on a Greyhound to New Jersey last summer. Unaware he was being filmed, Bryant famously told two fans he was furious the Lakers balked at trading Bynum for Jason Kidd.

“Ship his ass out,” Bryant barked.

Bynum said Bryant later apologized to him via text message. “I see what he was saying,” Bynum said. “We were losing and had the opportunity to get a Hall of Fame point guard.”

By then, however, Bynum had already dedicated himself to using the summer to improve. During his first two seasons, Bynum’s spotty work habits had frustrated both Bryant and Lakers' coach Phil Jackson.

“What motivates me is being the No. 10 pick and having people rely on you and you not being ready,” Bynum said. “I didn’t want to have that happen.”

So Bynum returned to the Lakers in considerably better shape. Working with the NBA’s all-time leading scorer also helped. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who now assists the team’s coaching staff, aided Bynum with his footwork and helped him become a more effective shot-blocker.

“Andrew took to working,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “…It was obvious he’s upped it to another level.”

The results weren’t hard to see. In the 35 games before he was hurt, Bynum averaged 13.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks. Those numbers began to spike in January, when he averaged 17.3 points and 12.2 boards in the two weeks leading up to the injury.

“That dude was becoming an emerging superstar,” Odom said. “He was on his way to being an All-Star.”

Bynum has vowed to be just as dedicated this summer. The Lakers can sign him to a contract extension, but they would be wise to wait until the end of the preseason to see how he performs.

But if Bynum’s knee heals completely? If he comes back healthy and hungry? If he fits seamlessly next to Gasol and Odom?

For the Lakers, the best is yet to come.

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