DRESSED IN streetclothes and parked at the end of the bench, injured center Andrew Bynum couldbarely sit still during the Lakers' flameout against the Celtics in the Finals."I saw those Boston guys just driving the lane, getting whatever shots theywanted," he says. "I think my presence would have made a difference. Icould have been in there altering shots and making guys think twice."
The Lakersbelieve that a healthy Bynum is the missing piece of their championship puzzle.The 7-foot 285-pounder was in the middle of a breakout year, averaging a doubledouble and leading the league in field goal percentage, when he dislocated hisleft kneecap last January, ending his second pro season after 35 games. IfBynum, who turns 21 on Oct. 27, can pick up where he left off, L.A. will get amuch-needed boost to its Charmin-soft interior. His return also enables 7-footPau Gasol to slide back to his more natural power-forward position and, withVladimir Radmanovic or Lamar Odom (both are 6'10") at small forward, givesthe Lakers the league's tallest front line.
Bynum is readyfor the challenge. He spent the summer in Atlanta with a personal trainerrehabbing his knee and says that it now feels 100%. He also worked on his gamewith former NBA swingman Gerald Wilkins, hoisting from 500 to 1,500 shots aday. "I picked up a nice 10- to 15-foot jump shot," he says."That's really going to help me out."
But although theLakers will make a post-season run, even a consistent jumper won't turn Bynuminto the secondary star (to Kobe Bryant) that L.A. needs to win it all.
A rival scout onthe LAKERS: I still question whether Kobe Bryant has enough support to win itall this year. The Lakers are still young, and their style is more finesse thanphysical; just look at Kobe's top teammates: Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. I don'tsee anyone else who has the tough, buck-stops-with-me demeanor that Kobehas.... Odom totally disappeared in the Finals. He's extremely good in gamesthat don't matter much, but when it's crunch time, he doesn't know how to raisehis game.... Last year Sasha Vujacic was a deadeye catch-and-shoot guy whoshowed teams he needs to be guarded. Now, when defenders rush out at him, hehas to prove he can take one or two dribbles, then knock down the shot.... L.A.would be best served by starting Trevor Ariza at small forward because hedoesn't need the ball. Otherwise, there aren't enough shots to go around. Whendefenses sag on Gasol or Andrew Bynum in the post, the best response would beto have a good cutter like Ariza going backdoor for layups.
As Kobe goes, so go the Lakers: Bryant shot 48.0% from the floor last season inL.A. wins but only 41.8% in losses. However, he scored more when the Lakerslost (29.9 points per game) than when they won (27.6).
PROJECTEDSTARTING FIVE with 2007--08 statistics
KEY BENCHPLAYERS: F Lamar Odom, G Jordan Farmar, F Trevor Ariza, G Sasha Vujacic, F LukeWalton, C Chris Mihm
Record: 57--25(1st in West)
Points scored: 108.6 (4th in NBA)
Points allowed: 101.3 (19th)
Coach: Phil Jackson (fourth season with Lakers)
INSIDE MAN Bynum (above) gives the Lakers a much-needed shot blocker and a more powerful low-post threat, which will help Bryant (opposite) in his quest for a fourth title.
NOAH GRAHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
PETER READ MILLER