Just because Kobe Bryant won't cede his Lakers throne easily doesn't mean his bosses aren't planning for the succession, and so it was that they had a strategy in place leading up to last month's trade deadline: Swap center Andrew Bynum for Orlando's Dwight Howard and ensure yet another generation of relevancy and championship contending.
But the Magic and Howard didn't cooperate, of course, because, rumor has it, the big man didn't want his career to be viewed as a carbon copy of Shaquille O'Neal's. So now, naturally, comes the question of whether Bynum, 24, has what it takes to be the heir. "He can definitely be that guy," says Lakers first-year coach Mike Brown. "There's no question in my mind. He definitely has the size, the ability, the agility and all that other stuff to be that guy."
Notice he said nothing about maturity.
It's not a matter of talent with Bynum, as he is widely regarded as the second-best center in the league when healthy and is in the midst of his best season yet. In fact, Bynum's production (17.9 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, 58.1% shooting) isn't far off of Howard's (20.9 points, 14.5 rebounds, 57.8% shooting). No one could blame him for wondering why Brown won't go to him more often, either, considering that Bryant—who recently admitted to creeping fatigue after a 3-for-21 night—is having his worst shooting season (42.4%) since he was a rookie 15 years ago, yet is getting nearly twice the looks of Bynum (a league-leading 23.5 shots per game to Bynum's 12.3).
The real issue is whether Bynum—who is still consistently referred to as a "kid" by Brown and general manager Mitch Kupchak although he has been in the league for seven seasons—is going to grow up as he grows into a more prominent role. Starting with the forearm shiver on Dallas's J.J. Barea in last year's Western Conference semifinals that cost him the first four games of this season, the petulant prodigy has spent much of the past 10 months acting out. He's picked up five technicals and was tossed from a loss to the Rockets on March 20 during which Los Angeles imploded in the fourth quarter without him.
And there was this telling scene from the Lakers' locker room last Thursday, where Bynum could be seen testing the limits of his newfound status. Before a Western Conference showdown with Oklahoma City in which the Lakers would be a no-show (a 102--93 loss), Bynum came bounding through a training room door with a blaring boom box on his shoulder and a seven-foot smile on his face. Much like the three-pointer he was benched for shooting two nights before in a game at Golden State, the music, by Brown's rules, was considered a no-no. But the coach wasn't around, so the job of delivering the latest message of restraint to the man-child was left to a media-relations employee.
The Lakers want Bynum to make noise, but this isn't exactly what they had in mind.
GREG NELSON (BYNUM)
HEIR BALL Bynum, who has 33 double doubles in 49 games, has on occasion played at a Howard-like level.