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MARK HEISLER / SUNDAY REPORT

Lakers try to answer the 14-foot question

It's tough to imagine how good they might be if 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol figure out how to stay healthy and play well together.

January 17, 2010|Mark Heisler

In the Lakers' Tale of Two Centers, it's not the best of times or the worst of times, simply the same old times.

In other words, Pau Gasol, who's not really a center, still plays there if Andrew Bynum has a problem -- fouls, injuries, non-discernible pulse, Phil Jackson -- as Bynum has for most of Gasol's two years here.

As usual, Bynum has been going wild with Gasol out, but Gasol just returned as all Lakerdom rejoiced, with the possible exception of Bynum's entourage.

Now everyone waits to see what happens next . . . again!

All that rides on it is their dynasty.

The Lakers can win titles without Bynum, as they effectively did last spring as he averaged six points and four rebounds, dropping in and falling out of the starting lineup.

Of course, the Lakers hardly looked unbeatable, if nobody quite managed it.

The year before when Bynum missed the postseason -- officially -- they weren't just beatable but wipeout-able, as the Boston Celtics showed in the Finals.

Despite everything you hear about their point guard, losing Trevor Ariza, getting Ron Artest, their bench, or Lamar Odom's wedding to Khloe Kardashian (Jeanie Buss said it was the first one she ever attended at which guests had to sign releases for a TV network), the Tandem That Looks Devastating on Paper is the whole Lakers ballgame.

When Gasol arrived two seasons ago, the Lakers seemed poised to go to a new level with one of the game's top two players and two 7-footers capable of averaging 20-10.

(The only other guy in the running for best player has Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who average 20-10 if you add their totals.)

Gasol and Bynum are naturally complementary with Pau high and Andrew low. Gasol can play the low post, but it's not his strength . . . as the Lakers saw in the 2008 Finals when Kendrick Perkins held Gasol to 15 a game without help, as Kevin Garnett left Lamar Odom to help everyone else play Kobe Bryant.

With a vintage Bynum and KG obliged to cover Gasol, Ray Allen might have needed a rope to guard Kobe.

That thought consoled the Lakers that summer, if not last season, as it turned out.

Coming off knee surgery, Bynum averaged 11-8 through Jan. 1. Of course, even with the tandem functioning at that C+/B- level, the Lakers were 25-6.

Bynum then proceeded to put it together in January, again, and get hurt in January, again.

He made it back for last spring's playoffs, but he was slower, less explosive and more petulant as his touches, shots and minutes dropped.

Copping his first official NBA attitude, he went on a media boycott. The media, which wasn't coming around, didn't even realize it.

When Jackson benched him in the first round against Utah, David Lee, Bynum's agent, called everyone he knew, starting with General Manager Mitch Kupchak, noting, among other things, Bynum didn't know if he could play for Jackson.

Not that anyone had asked what Bynum thought, because he had just gotten his four-year, $57 million extension and Jackson wasn't going anywhere.

Coincidentally or not, Lee, who represented Ariza, subsequently told the Lakers they couldn't just match the best offer for Ariza, they had to beat it.

Ariza swallowed the notion that he was being disrespected and went to Houston for exactly what the Lakers offered.

Instead of staying home and playing for rings, with no heavy lifting of the kind the Rockets require, Ariza is now shooting 38% and may get into the playoffs.

For Bynum's part, even at 22, with the noise in his ears, he kept it together.

Of course, Gasol helped by missing this season's first 11 games, in which Bynum averaged 21-12.

Gasol then missed six more this month -- in the nick of time for Bynum, who had nodded off, averaging 13-6 in the interim, but now went back up to 19-12.

Even with Gasol back, the Lakers kept socking the ball in to Bynum in Friday's 126-86 rout of the Clippers. Both scored 20, the high for the tandem this season.

Gasol said he told Bynum, "Just go to the post, demand the ball, do your move and play the way you've been playing when I'm not out there."

"We have great chemistry," Gasol said. "I want him to be as aggressive as he has been the last couple games when I've been out and as aggressive as he was tonight."

Of course, Bryant, who determines the Lakers' dynamic, or is the Lakers' dynamic, is playing hurt and was content to take only 20 shots to get his 30 points.

You'd like their chances from here, but they're the Lakers, and haven't ever run out of surprises yet.

We'll just have to see where it goes, into a cloudless blue sky, or around and around in the usual circles.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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