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ANDREW BYNUM: THE NEXT IN LINE?

Lakers' pivotal deal is done

There's no reason to think it won't be a smart move, but why not wait until summer?

October 31, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE
  • Andrew Bynum, left, became the youngest player to be drafted in NBA history when the Lakers acquired him in 2005.
Andrew Bynum, left, became the youngest player to be drafted in NBA history… (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles…)

For his 21st birthday, at a party held at a local booze joint prior to his 21st birthday, Andrew Bynum took the stage and made it rain.

For the culturally challenged, that means he threw money at people.

A few days later, the Lakers have thrown it back, showering him with hard cash in a move that seems only slightly smarter than pelting strangers with dollar bills.

They just gave Bynum a four-year deal worth $57.4 million although, let's face it, they hardly know him.

What kind of starting center is he? In four seasons, he has started in only 28% of their games.

What kind of resilient player is he? Since recovering from last season's knee surgery, he has played in only two games.

What kind of adult will he be? He has been 21 for only four days.

Before shooting me an e-mail with the subject line reading "Kobe Hater" -- whenever I criticize any Lakers player, I am inexplicably called a Kobe Hater -- understand a couple of things.

This is not a rip of Andrew Bynum, who is ripped. He is huge, he is strong, he is regaining lost quickness and fighting through lost stamina.

There is no question Bynum can be the difference between an NBA Finals loss in Boston and an NBA championship won at Staples Center.

This argument is not about talent, it's about timetable.

Why the rush? Why the risk?

If they didn't sign Bynum by today, they couldn't have signed him until next summer. But it isn't as if they would lose Bynum next summer. He would have been a restricted free agent. Whatever he was offered by anyone else, the Lakers could have matched it and kept him.

His agent, David Lee, acted as if he were holding a gun to Mitch Kupchak's head, but that gun was filled with tap water. Any threats were idle. Any accusations of disloyalty were silly.

The Lakers didn't need to do this.

He would have cost them as much as $13 million more if they had waited, but that was happening only if Bynum had a breakout season. And if that happens, the Lakers are probably having a ring-bearing season, so the investment would eventually pay for itself.

By locking down the organization's potential cornerstone for a less-than-max figure, folks will say Kupchak got a steal.

But what did he steal? How is this different from sticking your hand in a darkened jewelry drawer and fleeing with a handful of, well, um, er, you're just not sure?

Kupchak has become possibly the league's best general manager, and if this blind grab works out, he will take a huge step toward becoming Jerry West.

If it doesn't, well, the Lakers could go south.

Kupchak is betting that Bynum's injury last season was a fluke, that he does not have some sort of congenital knee issues, that he is not injury-prone, that he can stay on the court through six months of aches and pains.

In other words, Kupchak is betting that Bynum is not a younger-looking Greg Oden. After watching the Portland franchise begin spinning down the drain behind their hobbled center Tuesday, that's a scary wager.

Kupchak is also betting that Bynum's brief performance last season was not a fluke, that his knee will eventually allow him to work the court with the same energy that carried the Lakers early last season.

Can two games really answer that question? Two games against the Trail Blazers and Clippers, two teams that probably will not even make the playoffs?

Has any center in the history of the NBA ever received a $10-million raise after totaling 20 points and 10 rebounds in 53 minutes against anybody?

Finally, Kupchak is betting on something that any parent will say is impossible to win.

He is betting that he knows when Bynum is going to grow up, and he is betting that it is now.

Allowing himself to be videotaped throwing money at people at a bar before his first comeback game is a sign that maybe this kid is still just a kid.

But the Lakers aren't paying for a kid, they are paying for an adult to recover from knee surgery and become an eventual centerpiece.

If it doesn't work, by the time they find out, they will have probably lost at least Lamar Odom, if not chances at signing other free agents. The contract could be a championship blessing, but it could also prove to be a debilitating burden, and why take that chance now?

In many ways, Bynum has so far been the epitome of a Lakers success story. Jim Buss drafted him, Kurt Rambis schooled him, Gary Vitti fixed him, Kupchak refused to trade him.

Seemingly everybody has touched his brief success, and future potential free agent Kobe Bryant has endorsed it, which maybe explains why nobody has the patience to see if it sticks.

Eerily, on Halloween in 2006, Kupchak gave an unnecessary contract extension to a four-year veteran who had started only 48 games at the time.

No, no, Andrew Bynum is no Brian Cook.

But what exactly is he? And why did the Lakers place part of their mighty franchise precariously on his young shoulders before they knew?

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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