Posted Mar 9 2011 11:08AM
As a kid growing up and up and up, Andrew Bynum thought about being the next Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson or some other center on that level. Although now that he's settled in the NBA, he's happy being the next Bill Cartwright.
Let him explain.
"In this system, the triangle offense, even those Bulls teams, when they were winning championships, they didn't have a big man deeply involved in the offense. They had guys who controlled the paint in Cartwright and Luc Longley, guys who made it tough for others to score.
"We have a team like that."
So the Lakers have a center like that. As much as Michael Jordan and some Chicago fans grudgingly admit it, Cartwright was vital to those championships. Yes, he was clumsy and cursed with stone hands. But he also knew that rebounding and interior defense, his specialties, were valued by Phil Jackson and came in handy whenever Patrick Ewing was in town.
Bynum is more graceful and younger than Cartwright was then, except in the knees, but the role is the same. His defense and work on the glass is once again proving valuable to the Lakers. This time, he might even stay healthy enough to last through June. Assuming the Lakers do as well.
Oh, and we should mention Bynum is still a member of the Lakers, meaning those trade rumors were, as a Laker source said, baseless.
"I never really let it bother me," Bynum said, and you get the idea nothing bothers him much, except for lingering pain in the knee.
"I mean, we need the guy," said Kobe Bryant. "He's made that clear."
Bynum is perhaps on his finest roll since 2007-08, right before he injured his knee for the first time. Or maybe this is the best stretch of his career. It's hard to say he's turned the corner because every time he did in the past, he slipped and fell and hurt himself. That's why he and the Lakers are holding their collective breaths.
The last three games, he's pulled down 17, 17 and 16 rebounds, the last two against All-Star big men Tim Duncan and Al Horford. Plus, he blocked six shots against the Bobcats and three each against the Spurs and Hawks. And given the chance to score, he made 8-of-10 baskets in the victory over the Hawks, keeping the Lakers a perfect 8-0 since the All-Star break. They play in Miami on Thursday (TNT, 7 p.m.).
"He's playing phenomenally well," Bryant said. "He's doing everything we ask of him, and more."
It was right before the All-Star break when Bynum embraced the concept of defense and rebounding in a chat with Jackson. Bynum is just 23 and still trying to establish himself in the league because of the frequent interruptions with knee injuries. So he felt he deserved to see the ball more often, rather than go through his basketball life as a one-dimensional player.
Except the Lakers only call his number in rare situations. After all, they have Kobe, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in line ahead of Bynum.
"He's an effective scorer when placed in the right situation in our offense," Jackson said, "but he knows the difference between us being a good and a great club is his presence on the floor, particularly the defensive end. He's a smart kid. He understands that."
It's one thing to understand it, quite another to accept it. Too many players his age would chafe at the idea of being a fourth or fifth option. And such a sacrifice comes at a personal cost; Bynum knows he won't make many All-Star teams averaging 11 points a game.
While players will always give lip service to winning, and many of them are actually sincere about it, they also enjoy establishing themselves among their peers. As long as he's in the triangle offense and has Gasol and Kobe for teammates, Bynum can scratch any ideas about getting 10-15 touches a game.
Still, at this point, Bynum just wants to stay healthy for when the Lakers need him most. That would be a reversal for someone who played last summer's championship series on one leg and only once has played a complete season. He missed the first 24 games this season following knee surgery and Jackson has him on a tight minutes leash, rarely playing him more than 30 minutes a game. That makes Bynum's recent performances all the more impressive.
"I told him he got his injury out of the way this time," said Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw. "So he's not allowed to get hurt again."
Bynum feels a bit flattered these days, not only because the Lakers refused to entertain the thought of moving him at the trade deadline, but also because Oklahoma City got a big man at the deadline, Kendrick Perkins, specifically for Bynum and the Lakers.
"Everybody's trying to change their teams in order to take us down," he said. "That's a sign of respect. It gives a new challenge and motivation to prevent them from doing it."
If this is the Bynum the Lakers can come to expect in the coming months, a swatting, rebounding and forceful center -- and we should add a healthy one -- then it could be another long season in Los Angeles. In a good way.
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