Magic center Dwight Howard, right, and Lakers center Andrew Bynum, shown… (John Raoux / Associated…)
The debate extends from every Lakers fan, notable ex-Lakers and probably even the front office.
Should the Lakers value Dwight Howard over Andrew Bynum, or vice versa? Clearly, the Lakers want Howard or else they wouldn't have discussions with the Magic over its disgruntled center. But there are plenty of questions to complicate those talks. In no particular order, they include: Would Bynum sign a long-term extension with Orlando? Would Howard do the same with the Lakers? Which other players would the Magic receive in return for its franchise player? Which expensive contracts would the Lakers absorb to land the league's best center?
But there's another variable. Which should be of more concern: Howard's surgically repaired back or Bynum's surgically repaired right knee? There are at least two ways to look at that issue.
Why Howard's back is more worrisome: Howard suffered a herniated disc in his back last season and missed the last 12 regular-season games plus the playoffs. Rehabbing from back surgery can be dicey. Howard recently told The Times' T.J. Simers that his back would be fine for the start of the season. However, it's possible Howard could miss a good chunk of the start of the season.
For the Lakers, that's a significant risk. Yes, they should have a well-oiled offensive machine in Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. But who would play center? Would Gasol slide over while Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison play at four? Would the three take turns playing power forward and center? Regardless, an absent center severely hurts the Lakers' frontline depth and puts its power forwards in positions where they're not playing to their strengths.
Besides, Bynum proved this past season he can go through the entire year throughout a major injury. He and the Laker training staff deserve credit for that. He wears a knee brace. During last year's NBA all-star break, Bynum received a lubricant injection in his right knee. He sat out of the 2012 London Olympics partly to avoid stress on the knee. Bynum's also planning to have an innovative procedure in Germany in September on the knee, the same one Kobe Bryant had last year. Even if he could get hurt at any moment, it's more likely Bynum would be available at the beginning of the season than Howard.
Why Bynum's knee is more worrisome: He may have survived the injury scare last season, but that doesn't mean Bynum has established a trend. In the previous four seasons, Bynum sat out an average of 31 games because of injuries. And he's only one freak accident away from another one. Given his 7-foot frame and strength under the basket, it's almost inevitable that will major collisions will happen on court.
So, even if Howard's back could give the Lakers a short-term hit, it's highly possible Bynum could create further long-term problems. Once Howard heals, his track record shows he won't have issues moving forward. Regardless of whether Bynum's at full strength, the Lakers will once again be in a vulnerable position where their fortunes rest on their center not having another accident.
Verdict: No one knows for sure how this would play out. But it's more advantageous to the Lakers to suffer a short-term hit with enough comfort to know that Howard would be back at some point during the season. Yes, it doesn't help the Lakers' cause in immediately establishing chemistry. But on paper, the Lakers should have enough talent in the starting lineup for Howard to play a secondary role or sit out altogether. As for Bynum, the Lakers have learned over the years that another long-term injury can happen at any moment. They avoided that dreadful fate for one season, but that doesn't mean they will again. Considering how much the Lakers' championship fortunes depend on their center's production, Howard's health issues remain a less considerable risk than Bynum.