Back when Kobe Bryant said "ship his ass out!" in reference to Andrew Bynum, there was no such thing as a usable amnesty clause. Pau Gasol was a disgruntled member of the Memphis Grizzlies, coached by Marc Iavaroni. Derrick Rose was waiting to play his first game for another Memphis team—the Tigers—under coach John Calipari. Boston's roster looked a little off. They had acquired Ray Allen from Seattle, but it remained to be seen how the catch-and-shoot specialist would mesh with the plodding Al Jefferson. A mysterious SMS-messaging program called "Twitter" had just floored the techies at South by Southwest that spring.
In short, it was a different world—one where Kobe's future with the Lakers was highly in doubt. Tectonic shifts assured his place on the team and in Los Angeles lore. Over that span, Bynum slowly rose like polar seas.
Bryant remains essential, and the Lakers will likely look uncomfortable in his absence tonight against the San Antonio Spurs. But his permanent absence from the team is coming, likely sooner rather than later:
Bryant, however, has already showed plenty of signs of wear and tear. Somebody could write a feature film about his right knee. Bryant took it to Colorado for surgery in 2003, a visit that famously ended in scandal at a hotel in the town of Eagle. It was operated on again in 2006 and 2010. It then kept Bryant from practicing nearly all of last season, which has been called a key factor in major breakdowns in the team when under stress against the Mavericks in the playoffs, where the favored Lakers were swept in four games. The same knee has already undergone a fourth operation this summer, this time in Germany.
In the preseason piece, Abbott analyzed whether or not Los Angeles should use its amnesty on Kobe. While Bryant remains excellent in his 16th season, he's also owed $83 million in a new CBA reality. With prescience, Abbott went on to cite Bynum as L.A.'s most likely source of improvement, while allowing one caveat per the optimism:
Bryant, who has long had a tendency to hurt the Lakers with ballhogging in crunch time, has signaled he is unwilling to give up the rock, telling reporters at the end of the season: 'Ultimately, [Bynum will] have to fall in line because I’m gonna shoot the ball -- we all know that. Pau is going to get his touches; he’s number two. And then [Andrew] will have to fall in line.'
In other words, Bryant is unlikely to make a vast improvement, and while Bryant's controlling the ball, the same is true of Bynum, too.
Somehow, like the beanstalk that grew from concrete, Andrew Bynum has thrived despite this. Those 35 minutes a night are certainly helping the big guy find shots that Kobe would otherwise hide from him. Unless this is all a lockout-season mirage, Bynum has become a franchise player in a season where Kobe's producing a career-worst true-shooting percentage. As one superstar wanes, another appears. Those Lakers have all the luck, right?
While it is intuitive to think Bynum's preeminence might make Bryant expendable, I see it differently. As long as Los Angeles can contend, they have no need to try something as wrenching as amnestying Kobe Bean Bryant. The "new" Bynum affords them that option, and should do so through the next two playoffs, provided the center stays healthy and that Bryant stays resilient in the face of inexorable age. After that, A.B. can be extended and K.B. will be on the last year of his weighty deal.
Before, the Lakers may have felt hogtied by the financial inability to sign an imminent free agent like Dwight Howard. Today, would they even trade Andrew for Dwight? Los Angeles lacks flexibility in part due to Kobe Bryant's massive contract, but if Andrew Bynum continues to ball, the Lakers can accept the restricted life.