Andrew Bynum: Is Lakers Center Capable of Carrying Kobe Bryant's Torch?

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Andrew Bynum: Is Lakers Center Capable of Carrying Kobe Bryant's Torch?
Harry How/Getty Images

I'm not so sure that Andrew Bynum is capable of carrying anything other than the towel he likes to drape over his head when sulking on the Lakers bench.

At a time when his teammates needed him to step up on the court and to encourage players when he was on the bench, the Lakers' All-Star center did neither. 

Before a national television audience on ABC, the Lakers staged their biggest and most remarkable comeback victory of the season, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday afternoon without Bynum, who was benched for the fourth quarter and both overtimes in L.A.'s 114-106 win.

With a lineup that included seldom-used center Jordan Hill (replaced Bynum) and small forward Devin Ebanks (in for Metta World Peace, who was ejected from the game after slamming his elbow into the neck and head of Thunder guard James Harden), the Lakers fought their way back from an 18-point  deficit and won a game that may have sealed the important third seed in the Western Conference heading into next weekend's playoffs.

Bynum is a total enigma—arguably the top center in the NBA but at the same time immature, lacking focus and hunger to play a team game. He scored 10 points on 5-of-15 shooting against OKC, often appearing disinterested in the outcome of the game.

As Mark Medina of the L.A. Times wrote so succinctly following the game yesterday against the Thunder:

"Bynum's effort was atrocious. With how little margin of error the Lakers have in matching the Thunder's speed, they had to outwork them. But when your star center isn't hustling for rebounds or showing aggressiveness in the post, how are the Lakers going to have any chance to win? Easy. Bench him for the last quarter and both overtimes.

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"With how much the Lakers offense centers on Bynum, there's no excuse for Bynum to finish with 10 points on five-for-15 shooting and eight rebounds. This episode marks the latest highlighting Bynum's immaturity. His poor game had nothing to do with the frontline not getting enough touches. It had everything to do with poor post presence, minimal off-ball movement and little effort."

I have always been a fan of Bynum, the player, as he's improved his game every year and taken it to new levels. At a time when he should be leading his team and looking to take the torch from Kobe Bryant when the Mamba decides to hang up his sneakers, Bynum has become a reclusive, often surly, off-court individual who looks and sounds as if the expectations for him are just too much to handle.

And though it might be understandable that he would want to take care of his health in the offseason, wouldn't it also be a sign of commitment and passion for the game if Bynum were to consider joining the U.S. team for the Olympics this summer?

After Dwight Howard injured his back and announced he would need immediate surgery, it quickly became apparent that the U.S. team would need a replacement for the upcoming London games in July. And though Bynum was the logical choice for that coveted position, he immediately declined before he was even asked.

When asked by reporters after the Spurs beat the Lakers last Friday if he had any intention of trying out for the Olympic team, Bynum told ESPN.com's Dave McMenamim: "Probably not.  I got to take care of my legs in the off season." 

During timeouts of the Lakers-Thunder game, as the team made its heroic fourth-quarter push, Bynum steered clear of the huddle, often sitting away on the bench with a big white towel draped over him.  That's the sign of a leader?

Harry How/Getty Images

The Lakers obviously believe in Andrew Bynum—they recently said they would exercise his option for next season at $16.5 million and hoped to sign him to a long-term extension. He's an All-Star center with eye-popping numbers on offense and defense (30 rebounds against the Spurs in a recent win, a scoring average of 19 and 12 rebounds per game, both career highs).

But, take a look around the league at the leaders who carry the torch for their teams day in and day out: Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant. It's an exclusive group who all have one thing in common: they play hard every game and do whatever it takes to succeed both on and off the court. They understand their role.

Bryant must have thoroughly enjoyed the big win Sunday at Staples Center, won in spite of the drama over the MWP ejection and despite his starting center's lack of effort. 

And although Kobe knows the team needs Bynum at his best to win a title, he above all appreciates those who play hard, play smart, play with passion and play as a team. He was on the court with just those kind of players (Steve Blake, Devin Ebanks, Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol) when the Lakers pulled out this big victory.

Bynum was nowhere to be found. So much for the torch.

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