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Andrew Bynum limps into camp for the lamest of reasons

He put off postseason knee surgery so he could go to the World Cup. Now he's not ready for the preseason.

September 23, 2010|Bill Plaschke

The Lakers will walk back into our lives this weekend the same way they walked out last summer, Kobe Bryant strutting, Pau Gasol sprinting, Ron Artest stalking and Andrew Bynum limping.

Wait. Andrew Bynum is still limping?

This is a joke, right? Hasn't the dude already fixed last spring's torn knee? Surgery immediately after the season? Six to eight weeks for recovery?

You figured that of all the Lakers to undergo medical procedures this summer, an injury-prone player who has won two championship rings on the backs of teammates would be the first one at the leaded-glass window. You figured if Bynum didn't want to fix his knee because of the pain, surely he would do it because of the guilt.

As usual in the case of the Lakers' perplexing prodigy, you figured wrong. The season ended June 17, but Bynum didn't have the surgery until July 28. Doctors discovered more damage than expected. The recovery time will be longer than eight weeks. Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers' ever-so-patient general manager, said Thursday he didn't expect Bynum to return at full strength for any part of training camp, which begins Saturday.

All of which makes about as much sense as a contract this year that will pay Bynum nearly the same salary as Artest and Lamar Odom combined.

Different season, same story, the Lakers' big man comes up small. And if you don't think it matters more this year than ever, then you haven't been watching the folks gathering in Miami and Boston.

"We don't expect Andrew to be running up and down the floor doing drills during training camp," Kupchak said. "We don't expect much from him at any time during the next four weeks, then we'll just see what happens."

Kupchak was so restrained in his comments, you could almost hear his lower lip bleed. He is not going to publicly criticize the giant future of his organization. But he knows he has built this championship team by collecting guys who, despite their egos, have been willing to sacrifice themselves for the ring.

And Bynum wouldn't even give up a month of his summer?

"Yes, I'm disappointed that he's not ready for the start of training camp," Kupchak said.

The issue isn't what happened after the surgery, which fixed a cartilage tear in his right knee. The issue is what happened before the surgery.

After hobbling so badly in Game 7 of the NBA Finals that he lasted but 19 minutes while scoring only one basket, Bynum blew off the operating room to attend the World Cup in South Africa. How could he enjoy himself in such pain? Easy. He visited a doctor who drained his knee so he could make the intercontinental trip.

What is wrong with that picture? Only everything. Even though he missed 17 games during the 2010 regular season with injuries, even though his playing time dropped to 24 minutes per game during the playoffs because of his knee pain, Bynum gets treatment on the knee so he can vacation some more?

"In Andrew's defense, if he had known that his comeback period would be longer, he would have had the surgery quicker," Kupchak said.

But here's the thing. Shouldn't he have had the surgery immediately anyway? Even though he was told it would require only a two-month recovery period, Bynum should have known what every scarred veteran understands: Once doctors looked inside that knee, everything could change.

"That is why you do it earlier instead of later, just in case," Kupchak said.

Certainly, the kid didn't want to ruin his vacation. But clearly, he's not really a kid anymore, a 23-year-old who is making $13.7 million this year despite playing in 82 games only once in his five seasons with the Lakers.

If anybody owes the Lakers a full season of full effort, it's him. And if you thought he paid his debt by hobbling so valiantly during last season's playoffs after injuring the knee at the end of the opening-round series, that was only a first step.

We have learned that Andrew Bynum is tough. We still need to know that he is committed.

"Andrew is a ray of hope for us in the future, I think we will continue to look at him excelling here for the next 10 to 12 years," Kupchak said. "The only thing that has held him back has been the freakish-type injuries. If he could just play his first totally healthy season here, the rest would fall into place."

The last time a Lakers big man did something so medically dumb, it was Shaquille O'Neal refusing to fix his toe until just before the 2002-03 training camp, claiming: "I got hurt on company time, so I'll heal on company time."

Two underachieving seasons later, he was on Miami time, traded because owner Jerry Buss decided he wasn't worth the trouble. Interestingly, the guaranteed part of Bynum's contract expires in two seasons, at which point Buss will have to make the same sort of decision.

At this rate, maybe he shouldn't even wait that long. How can Andrew Bynum be the Lakers' future if you can't count on him today?

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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