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The future wears #17...?

The current Lakers squad is clearly potent enough to cement a new dynasty and complete Phil Jackson’s fourth three-peat by winning 2 more titles. The core of the team is in their primes, as well as experienced beyond their years. Bryant remains simply the best on the planet and Gasol is quickly cementing his status as the best power forward in the league (yes, I am aware that Duncan and Garnett still play), not to mention the 6’9’’ Zen master on the bench. For the next five years, Mitch Kupchak can lounge on a beach in the Caribbean and just marvel at the team he assembled.
But trouble lurks around the corner, even if few are ready to look that far down the road. The future of this team must be established, and the young talent on the team is scarce at best.
In forming this team, the Lakers have virtually guaranteed no influx in young talent for a number of years, due to trades and draft position. For the next few years the team will likely be unable to obtain any young and groomable prospects. The Lakers have one semblance of a future, and it would be beneficial for the team, now and in the future, if the team began focusing more energy on preparing Andrew Bynum to one day be the leader of the Lakers when Kobe is done.
In a few years, the current team will begin their decline and the torch must be passed on to a the next generation. This starts with finding a player, one who a team can be built around, who will lead the Lakers years down the road. And seeing as the Lakers will likely draft at the bottom of rounds for years to come, the best hope the Lakers have rests on the shoulders of the #17 in the middle. Andrew Bynum truly has the potential to be the best center in the West and the cornerstone of any growing team. Whether he grows into this player depends on management, fate, and Bynum himself.
With all the questions surrounding Big Drew, it may seem hopeless to think that he will one day lead the Lakers. But this must be the mindset of Lakers’ organization and fan base. He is clearly the best hope for a player around which to build the next Lakers team, and he must be trained for that role now.
A simple look at the age breakdown of the team shows that, a few years from now, the entire core of this team will fall victim to father time: Kobe=31, Pau=29, Odom=30, Artest=30, Fisher=35. The team is comprised of athletes at the peaks of their career or past it (in Fisher’s case), who a few years down the line will all see a serious drop in productivity. Drew is the best hope to pick up the slack. At 22, Bynum still has plenty of good years and further growth in front of him, assuming his body allows it.
For the purpose of this article, let’s assume that Bynum will not become a perpetual injury case that many believe him to be. I am aware that this is a real possibility, and if he becomes Greg Oden then all arguments in this article will prove moot. This is where fate is taken into account. But in the spirit of the holiday season, I choose to take a hopeful and optimistic view of Bynum’s future.
Anyone who has followed Bynum’s career has to be impressed by his length, developing strength, offensive array, and defensive prowess. If Dwight Howard did not exist, Bynum would be a shoe-in for top center of the future. In a previous generation, having a top 5 center who was only the 3rd best player on his team would be absurd. Bynum has shown that he has the capability to take over a game and dominate. At two points in his career, Bynum came out of his shell and showed the NBA what he could do.
During the 07-08 season Bynum exploded, finally showing the potential that all Lakers fans had hoped to one day see. His improved offense array, defense presence, and overall tenacity finally shown through.
For a brief period in 08-09, he regained his dominance and quickly became a nightly 20-10 threat, as demonstrated by his 42 point, 15 rebound game against the Clippers. For one small five-game span, he was the best center in the league. And for those who saw him, they know this is no exaggeration.
But beyond the statistics, during these periods he suddenly became freakishly dominant, explosive around the basket on both ends of the floor, and developed a killer mentality. He would rarely settle for a jump shot or hook, but aggressively attacked the basket, getting high percentage looks, hard rebounds, and putback dunks. And beyond that his defense was far sounder, becoming a shot-blocking machine. But as all know, unfortunately, both of these potential breakthroughs were halted by injury.
His promising start to this season showed flashes of his potential, but his recent slump has reignited concern about his future. On many NBA teams besides the Lakers, he would be the focal point of the offense and the backbone of a developing team. And yet on this team, due to his injury history, his occasional defensive absent-mindedness, and penchant to foul often, he has become the third or fourth option after a great start to the season.
Even on the short term, it would be better for the Lakers this season if more energy was put into developing Bynum and stimulating another breakthrough. Kobe and Gasol have, for the most part, both played their part in trying to get Bynum the ball more this season, and Bynum himself has admittedly been inconsistent, despite brief flashes of his potential. He seems tentative to go up strong and release his killer aggressiveness, possibly because he fears injuring his knees again. He just doesn’t have the same spring, and he needs to regain that, soon.
But beyond that, it still seems Phil has lost some faith Bynum. I can see no other explanation for his refusal to put Bynum in at the end of the game. The philosophy around a team should be that the starting 5 is the best 5-man team you can assemble. This unit should be on the floor at the beginning and end of the game.
Yet consistently, the lineup at the end of the game features Odom instead of Bynum. Occasionally this is due to Bynum’s penchant for foul trouble, but nonetheless he still gets relatively few chances to end games. How can Andrew gain confidence in his ability if his own coach treats him like an end-of-the-game liability? And frankly, even the most diehard Lakers fan cannot say that Odom brings more to the table than Bynum, and he certainly does not have the upside.
This team has won gone to two finals and brought home one trophy. During that time, their potential all-star center either sat injured or played an insignificant role, basically hibernating on the bench waiting to bloom. For two years Lakers fans have dreamed of the completed Lakers team.
It’s finally time to realize this potential.

Zac S.

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