Orlando center Dwight Howard spins baseline away from the defense of Lakers… (Gary A. Vasquez / US Presswire )
Let's have a big Lakerdom welcome for . . . whomever.
The Lakers' center of the future was back in Staples Center, even if you couldn't be sure which of the two who met Monday night it will be.
In a surprise to some Lakers fans and even some Lakers players — at least the ones who wanted him traded for Jason Kidd or Carmelo Anthony — Andrew Bynum held his own, scoring 10 points with 18 rebounds and four blocks to Dwight Howard's 22-15-two in the Lakers' 97-84 victory.
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Howard, of course, is the NBA's best center . . . and would continue a Lakers tradition of stealing them from Orlando.
And Bynum is the NBA's best center, too!
Well, he was briefly after going for 22 and 15 Saturday in Dallas when Channel 9's John Ireland gave him a field commission — "the best center in the NBA since the All-Star break" — before bumping him down to "best center in the West since the break."
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Let's see, there's the former Tim Duncan, Nene, Tyson Chandler, Emeka Okafor, Darko Milicic, Andris Biedrins . . .
Whatever Howard may become in 2012 when he can opt out of his contract, he's all Orlando's until then . . . and fed up with the speculation.
Seriously, where does this stuff get started?
It's true, when Howard was asked which player he'd most like to play with All-Star weekend, he said: "No. 24, Kobe Bryant!"
That was just a joke . . . at least for those who think there's such a thing as a joke.
Coincidentally, Dwight and Kobe have been friends since playing on the 2008 Olympic team ... at least for those who believe in coincidences.
"I tell people all the time, everybody has a certain image of Kobe and I don't find him to be that person," Howard said before the game. … "I always take up for him when people say he's a certain way. I think he's a good person."
Of course, if Bynum is in another of his midseason surges, he has yet to finish one healthy.
Nevertheless, when upright and in shape, he and Pau Gasol can play the game over opponents' heads, and have since the break, combining to average 30 points, 22 rebounds and 3.5 blocks, breathing life into the Lakers.
"This is a team where clearly, size becomes an issue, not just for us but for everybody," Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy said before the game. "This is the longest team in the league with Bynum, Gasol and [Lamar] Odom up front. I mean, I haven't seen anybody able to match their length."
It was your basic night in paradise.
When New Orleans' Chris Paul, whom the Knicks are targeting as a 2012 free agent, played in New York, the local press and fans held another of their (Fill-In-Blank)-Stock festivals.
When Howard, the object of as much speculation linking him to the Lakers in 2012, arrived here, no one said boo.
Instead we treated it with dignity and our famed West Coast chill.
DWIGHT, PLEASE COME! WE LOVE YOU, DWIGHT! DWIGHT?
Sorry, I don't know what got into me.
Happily, the subject didn't come up in Van Gundy's pregame news conference, because he's more fed up than Howard, who could end it just by saying he intends to re-sign in Orlando.
No one bothered Howard, either, since I was the only one who approached him before the game.
"You want to talk about free agency?" he asked.
No, I said, having just given up on that line of questioning.
Howard, who's 250 pounds of fun to Shaquille O'Neal's 325-to-375 when he was here, proceeded to trot out his new mantra without being asked.
"That's in two years," he said. "That makes me look bad to fans in Orlando, to my teammates. They'll feel like, 'He's trying to sell out on us.'"
That's considerate. It's also standard NBA fare now. Anthony just went four months insisting the front office wasn't telling him anything, as his people negotiated with the Nuggets and other teams to get him out of there.
In the good news for the Lakers, they have a stand-in until 2012, at least.