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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

A get-well note with significance

January 20, 2008|Mark Heisler

Guess who's staying for dinner?

It wasn't the best week in Lakerdom with Andrew Bynum out and fans booing poor Kwame Brown, who had enough problems before he had to replace a 20-year-old prodigy.

Happily for the Lakers, there was more going on than bracing for the next eight weeks.

After Monday's victory in Seattle, Kobe Bryant, who had scored 48 points and made the game-winning shot, did the obligatory sweaty stand-up with KCAL's John Ireland, in which he usually just says he wanted to stay aggressive.

This time, however, he wished Bynum the best, adding: "We're a championship-caliber team with him in the lineup."

With those 10 words, Bryant, who had refused to characterize the Lakers in any way at any point in their surprising start, gave away a new state of mind.

He's back?

Not yet he isn't, but for the first time since demanding a trade last spring and excoriating management, Bryant tipped off a change of his no longer cold, dead-beating, two-timing, double-dealing, mean mistreating, loving heart.

Always stubborn, almost always controlled, Bryant rarely gives hints, even with teammates or Phil Jackson, but there has been no missing his thaw.

"I think he thoughtfully and with intent was very reserved and very kind of internal about his thoughts and didn't want to speak out," said Derek Fisher.

"I think he made it very obvious he wanted to just see what was going to happen. . . . No one knew what Andrew was going to be able to do. Nobody knew what I was going to be able to do. Nobody knew what Jordan Farmar was going to be able to do.

"There were a number of other-than-Kobe-who-is-this-team [questions] going on and we've had some guys fill some roles and step up in a way that's made us into a team.

"So he as well as myself and, I think, even Phil feels we have a team and it's not just Kobe and the guys."

If Bryant is constructive instead of emotionally locked down, they're not just a team but a budding power, instead of the hype of the last three seasons.

Of course, Bryant has since been asked about his "championship-caliber" quote without betraying anything more.

Nor will he until after the season. If you were him -- and believe me, whoever you are, you're not -- you wouldn't, either. The day Bryant says he's back, he'll be asked why.

The short answer is "Andrew Bynum," but if Bryant says that, the next question will be about his on-camera rant about not trading Bynum for New Jersey's Jason Kidd.

Then Bryant would be asked about torching owner Jerry Buss and General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who, it turned out, weren't just right but brilliant in their handling of the situation, hanging on to Bynum, riding out Kobe's days of rage, however miserable they felt at the time.

"They handled it exactly right," said a West team official. "They didn't overreact. I really respect that. They deserve what's happening to them."

Bynum now ranks on a par with Portland's Greg Oden, considered the center prospect of his generation before knee surgery deferred his rookie season.

Indiana Pacers President Donnie Walsh, who tried to acquire Bynum, said recently, "The great wars are going to be between Greg Oden and Bynum."

"I think, just looking at them, Bynum's a much better offensive player and Oden's a much better defensive player," said Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni.

"They're both going to be good because they're excellent in what they do. Now, can they expand their game?"

In all probability, Oden can. Bynum definitely can since he already is.

Bynum's defense has taken a quantum leap from the start of the season when he was just trying not to foul out and was told to "be 7 feet tall" -- stay on the floor with his arms extended above his head.

When he showed he could do that, they went to the next lesson: Moving.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar started telling him to get his weight down instead, to move as the ball did, waiting to use his size at the right moment.

"It was like in a period of three days," said Abdul-Jabbar. "On the third day nobody in practice could get an easy shot. It was that quick."

Bynum's blocked shots went from 1.5 a game in November to 2.7 in December and he has been in the top 10 since.

Of course, to get to their promising future, the Lakers have to survive the next eight weeks with all their (ugh) issues back:

Will Lamar Odom score enough (shoot enough, take the ball to the hole enough) for a No. 2 option?

Will Bryant trust his teammates and will they step up instead of waiting for him?

How long do we have to watch passes bounce off Brown?

This is what the Lakers thought they were two seasons ago. It's all they would have ever been without Bynum, right up until the moment Bryant left and the Ice Age set in.

For Lakers fans, if not Lakers coaches, it's actually good to see Bryant take 44 shots as he did in Seattle.

It shows he identifies with this team and is assuming responsibility for it, rather than sitting back and evaluating it. It may be wrong but it's what Bryant does when he cares, as he seems to, once more.

It won't be over till it's over but in the best possible news for the Lakers, they may still get to keep being the Lakers, after all.


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