LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 02: Andrew Bynum #17 and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers stand on the court before taking on the Dallas Mavericks in Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 2, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
The rise of Andrew Bynum threatens to displace the Lakers' established hierarchy -- even Kobe Bryant at the top -- and must inform every hard decision to come.
The Los Angeles Lakers now face an 0-3 deficit to the wonderful Dallas Mavericks, a margin that's never been overcome in the NBA. L.A., winners of the last three Western Conference banners and two straight NBA Championships, must win four straight, two of them in Dallas, against a team that has been dominant in this series. The odds of recovery are low.
And the Lakers' future is odd. A season without a title does not end a dynasty; the San Antonio Spurs never won back-to-back banners, for instance, but dominated the NBA for a time (2003-2007). The Lakers' dynasty will survive insomuch as it isn't dead solely for this defeat (assuming the defeat comes to pass); if we've killed the Lakers, we'll have known it. This isn't it.
But this could very well be the end of the Lakers as we know them, and it absolutely should be the end of the Lakers as we know them. Game 3 presented an option for the new reality of the Lakers, one that Los Angeles could embrace but that has extraordinary complications and so many out-of-place quarks.
I'm talking about Andrew Bynum.
Somewhere during the Lakers' electric post-All-Star run, Bynum became the Lakers' best big man, usurping Pau Gasol -- a man as responsible for the back-to-back titles as anyone, given L.A.'s lack of championship success in the post-Shaq paradigm. That Bynum is now superior to Pau isn't a problem in and of itself; Gasol is excellent, and to have someone better -- especially someone younger -- is a net plus in the macro sense. But Bynum has complications. He comes with a couple asterisks.
Let us never forget that Kobe pilloried the Lakers for refusing to give up Bynum in a trade for Jason Kidd, the 38-year-old point guard Bryant couldn't dominate at the end of Game 3. Everything eventually washed under the bridge; Kobe made a concerted effort to make amends with Bynum, even before the young center further refined his game and became such a force. But time and apologies can only heal so much, and Bynum has proven to be a proud man with his own ideas of how things should go.
This isn't meant as an insult to Pau, who is as smart a big man as the league has. But where Gasol is deferential (and almost reverential) to Kobe, Bynum won't be. Bynum, in his mind (and probably in reality), is too good for that. In the modern, guard-dominant NBA, there are Franchise Big Men and Weapon Big Men. Gasol is a Weapon -- he proved that with sustained but limited success in Memphis, and his role as Kobe's No. 2 in L.A. (a role that led to two titles) is further evidence. Swap Dirk Nowitzki for Pau, and the Mavericks aren't here. They aren't anywhere close.
Bynum's going to be different. Dirk, Dwight Howard -- those are the league's only Franchise Big Men right now. (Tim Duncan just dropped out, and Kevin Garnett's running on an expired license.) Bynum's on the path to join them. His mix of defense, rebounding and adept scoring tells me it's a matter of health, time and shot attempts until he's an All-Star, and the no-brainer starting center on that team.
Ah, shot attempts. That's where this gets tricky.
Game 3 was an aberration. Four Lakers -- Kobe, Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom -- shared the offense almost equally, with Pau taking 13 field goal attempts and the others ending up with 16. Usually, Kobe takes twice as many as Pau, and the others fall in under 10. Bynum averaged 7.6 shots per game during the regular season. Kobe averaged 20. The norm is Kobe dominating the ball, and the others fighting for the scraps. Soon, maybe now, Bynum will begin to take Pau's place as the lead dog among the scrap-pirates. But that's not enough.
Kobe is slowing down in terms of effectiveness. He's still better than almost every other guard in the league, and he's better than any 32-year-old. 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.
Bynum, remember, told Kareem Abdul-Jabbar he didn't need his help any more. Bynum, remember, delayed offseason knee surgery because he wanted to enjoy a bit of his offseason before getting on crutches. Bynum is not Gasol, will not defer by default, will not let Kobe run the Lakers in the tyrannical method he has since exiling Shaq in 2004. Bynum is the Kobe to Kobe's Shaq, not in the sense that he'll build enough animosity to force a divorce, but in that he has the power of the future on his side.
This relationship and fear must inform every decision the Lakers make, from who replaces Phil Jackson to what happens with the roster and everything in between. Mitch Kupchak deftly navigated the tricky waters of the 2006-2008 period, after flaming out in 2004-05 in the post-Shaq, post-Phil meltdown. Kupchak recovered beautifully, and built a champion. The challenge is back, and this one might be as tricky as any the Lakers GM has faced.
Welcome to the Lakers' odd future, where drama once again triumphs in defeat.