Now that JaVale McGee is safely tucked away in the mountains of Denver, Bynum has emerged in the last few weeks as the NBA's resident No. 1 knucklehead. His stature as the second-best center in the NBA only makes his inexplicable behavior more frustrating for those who admire his throwback game.
Bynum's transgressions, taken by themselves, fall far below the level of unforgivable. The episode last week, when he took two 3-pointers, dogged on defense and was benched for it, only to plead ignorance to what he did wrong and insist "I'm going to take some more" was only the most well-documented episode.
Piled up on top of each other, though, the incidents of immature behavior reveal disturbing things about the player the Lakers believe is their future. Bynum needlessly evoked controversy when asked a mundane question about what the Lakers talked about in a timeout, dismissively remarking that he gets his "Zen on" during stoppages and doesn't take part in team huddles. He was ejected from Friday's game against the Rockets, he parks in handicapped parking spots, and the general consensus is that he's just a plain old pain in the neck.
Bynum's delinquency has given Lakers observers an easy explanation for why the Lakers have struggled to gain traction this season, despite a four-game win streak entering Friday. If arguably their best player — and by now Bynum may indeed have edged past Kobe Bryant as L.A.'s best player — thinks the team is better off with him jacking three-balls and inconveniencing little old ladies and people in wheelchairs, then the Lakers' chemistry is a mess, thereby dooming their championship hopes.
The Lakers' title aspirations, and Bryant's quest to match Michael Jordan's six championship rings, are in trouble this season. But Bynum's attitude is merely a symptom of a team that was flawed in its construction.
Very little has been certain in this lockout-shortened season, which has been so different from any NBA season ever played before — even the previous lockout-abbreviated campaign of 1998-99. Still, almost everybody agreed prior to the season that a team would need to follow one of two blueprints to be successful in playing a large amount of games in a limited number of days:
1. Exploit youth and depth to keep players fresh, as the Pacers, Thunder, Sixers, Grizzlies and Nuggets have to varying degrees of success.
2. Manage stars' minutes so they have enough energy left for the stretch run, an approach the Celtics and Spurs have employed in different ways.
The Lakers did neither. They were constructed to rely on a 16-year veteran carrying the offense with a non-existent bench, no outside shooting and literally the worst point guards this side of the NBDL.
Bryant, who has logged more than 42,000 minutes in his NBA career — more than supposed senior citizens Tim Duncan or Steve Nash — leads the league in minutes played this season at 33 years of age. He has inevitably caused permanent damage to his shooting hand by playing through a torn ligament in his right wrist, chucking up his most shots per game since 2005-06.
Lakers coach Mike Brown has not managed Bryant's minutes well, but it was not as though he had much of a choice. General manager Mitch Kupchak set Brown up to fail with a bench anchored by Josh McRoberts, Matt Barnes and Steve Blake that gives them less than 21 points per game, the lowest bench scoring average in the NBA. As a team, the Lakers have the fourth-lowest 3-point field-goal percentage in the league, and no other four-guard rotation had a lower cumulative player efficiency rating than the quartet of Blake, Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock and Derek Fisher (who has since been traded to the Rockets, who bought out his contract).
When things go wrong for a team, it is natural to place the onus on the stars and end there. In a way, that is fair. Stars make the most money, usually get the most shots (although Bynum does not get this perk, since he shares the court with Bryant) and soak up all the glory when things go well. It is only fitting that they should assume blame when there is trouble.
For decades, most of the NBA's best big men have also been among the league's ideal teammates and role models. Duncan and Kevin Garnett have been models of consistency and team play, and before them, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar carried themselves with class.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers lauded Garnett and Duncan before the two squared off on Wednesday.
"They're so different in the way they play, but they're very similar in the way they approach the game," Rivers said. "They're as professional as we've seen for stars, maybe ever, at the same time. You rarely get two superstars at their level that are as coachable and are as team-oriented as those two guys."
That could be part of why there is such a backlash against Bynum and Dwight Howard. The "good" guys spoiled us.
Bynum is unlikely to win any Good Samaritan or Teammate of the Year trophies anytime soon, unless the awards were given out ironically, which would be both awkward and awesome. He is just as unlikely to win a title with the Lakers this season unless something in their current structure changes drastically in the next month or so, and that is the real reason the Lakers could find themselves finishing this shortened regular season with an even shorter postseason.
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