Whenever the words "Andrew Bynum" and "trade" come up in the same sentence, they are usually uttered by fluttering L.A. Lakers fans who seek to upgrade their favorite, excise an unfriendly, possibly spoiled bulletin board machine or are just cranky about the latest failings of the young center. But maybe the rest of us should start talking about trading Andrew Bynum the same way we've talked about, say, Steve Nash the last few years. Maybe we should want the Lakers to trade Bynum so that he doesn't continue to go to waste caddying for Kobe Bryant.
Clearly, the Bynum-Kobe Lakers won't reach the heights of even the Gasol-Kobe Lakers, let alone the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. L.A. is one defeat from a second straight second-round dismissal after losing a 13-point lead in Game 4 at home on Saturday. Kobe is 34. Phil Jackson is gone. Upgrading the point guard position -- to Ramon Sessions from Derek Fisher -- didn't do a whole lot of good. Metta World Peace is near the end of his effectiveness. Pau Gasol isn't far behind.
The Lakers badly needed Game 4. Now they must beat the Thunder three straight times, two of those in Oklahoma City, where L.A. is 3-6 overall since 2009-10. In the first 14 minutes of the game, the Lakers had Game 4, as Bynum was dominant with 14 points on 7-8 shooting. In the second half, he got all of four shots as Kobe decided that the Lakers would live or die by his hand.
The Lakers are blaming Pau Gasol for not being aggressive enough late; in particular, his decision to pass instead of shoot in the final minute directly gave Kevin Durant an opportunity to shove a dagger deep into L.A.'s chest. That's fine. Pau should have taken the shot, and his confidence and comfort have always been issues, going all the way back to Memphis. Part of the problem in L.A., despite the wondrous success in 2009 and 2010, has historically been Gasol's unwillingness to take the ball from Kobe. It's still a problem.
But Bynum has no problem taking the ball from Kobe ... if he could only ever touch it. Kobe and Bynum were both on the court for the final 7:19 of the game. The Lakers led by nine when Bynum came in. The All-Star center would get one shot for the rest of the game. Kobe would take nine. Kobe had three times as many shots (the bulk of them forced, difficult shots) as Bynum had offensive touches over those seven minutes. Kobe even noted in the postgame that he was being forced into difficult shots ... yet he made little effort to get the ball to Bynum, who had been demanding doubles and could have opened the floor.
This was a different type of hero ball. It wasn't uncreative one-on-five isolation for the sake of tradition and narrative. It was one guy asserting that even though his team had a substantial lead, the stories would read that he made the shots when it mattered most, that the Lakers lived by Kobe Bryant and died by Kobe Bryant. And die they did.
The Pau-Kobe relationship and the Bynum-Kobe relationship, at least on the court, which is all we can really see, are completely different. Pau is deferential by nature. He's a pleaser, a team player who (unlike so few NBA stars) understands his limits, strengths and weaknesses, and is almost eager to share all burdens. Bynum is more like Kobe: he wants to go out on his terms. Unfortunately, Kobe has history on his side. He has the bench on his side. He has the ball in his hands by default, and he -- not Steve Blake or Mike Brown or Sessions -- decides whether Bynum gets the ball. And he decided on Saturday night that Andrew Bynum does not get the ball, not when the Lakers needed most to get him the ball.
Last year around this time, when the Lakers trailed the Mavericks 3-0, I wrote that Bynum should trump everything in L.A., that his future must inform all personnel and coaching decisions that the Lakers would make. That didn't happen: it's still all about Kobe. That's how you get fourth-quarter meltdowns like the one we watched on Saturday. That's how you get what appears to be a second straight second-round dismissal.
It's not like Bynum is perfect -- he's far from it. He's a child, and he should be beyond that by now. He should know by now what to say, to always play hard, not to show up his coach on the court or in front of voice recorders. But when you look at the real make-up of the team and the career arcs of its stars, there should be no question. The Lakers need to build around Bynum, or he's going to go to waste carrying Kobe's luggage. Talk all you want about Kobe's will to win, but even Michael Jordan, the ultimate cutthroat competitor, knew when to share the rock, when to let someone else help.
If Kobe really wants nothing more than win, with no strings attached, he'd see the importance of feeding Bynum. Instead, he seems more concerned now by winning on his own terms. That's his choice. It's just unfortunate that Bynum and Pau have to take all the blame and suffer the repercussions of the Lakers' eventual expulsion.