Walk into any local sports bar in Los Angeles and mention Andrew Bynum, and you're bound to get at least two very vocal and opposing viewpoints.
To some Lakers faithful, particularly those 25 years old and under, Bynum is the face of the Lakers' future. At 22 years old, "Drew", as he is affectionately known in Lakerdom, is nine years younger than Kobe, which means he'll only be 30 years old when Kobe retires.
At an imposing 7 feet and 285 pounds, they'll tell you that he's only an inch shorter than Wilt Chamberlain was, but 10 pounds heavier, and more importantly, won two rings for the Lakers, one more than Wilt did, which makes him immediately better than Wilt.
They'll point to the start of the 2007-08 season, when Bynum was leading the NBA in field goal percentage at .638, and how he scored 28 points, grabbed 12 boards, dished four assists, and made two blocks against the Suns on Christmas Day, as evidence of his "potential."
They'll speak with great fondness of the time Bynum scored "42 points against the Clippers!" in the 2008-09 season. Or how he grabbed a career-high of 18 rebounds against the Bucks this past January as evidence of his "continual improvement." And they'll never fail to mention that Bynum once had "seven blocks!" in his "rookie season!" against the Bobcats.
Move down the bar, however, and speak with the older gentleman that's sitting by himself in a perpetual daze, with the scruffy hair and a face like jerky from years of UV abuse, and you'll get a much different opinion.
"Bynum? You've got to be kidding. Either he's injured all the time or his minutes are limited because he's from recovering from an injury."
Ask him about Bynum's "potential" and he'll shoot you a look that's eerily similar to the one that you used to see from your Vietnam vet uncle when you said "good morning".
"Potential? Are you nuts?! We've had him for five years and he still doesn't average more than 15 points. Kareem and Shaq, they averaged more than 30! And he rebounds maybe eight a game, hardly dominant numbers!"
Ask him if he's being a little harsh and mention that Bynum helped the Lakers win back-to-back titles, and he'll shake his head and roll his eyes like when you ask Lakers fans today if Jordan is better than Kobe.
"Bynum didn't win those championships, Kobe and Pau did! He barely played last year and this year he was hobbling all over the court! You need to dig up some old VHS tapes of when Kareem or Shaq was playing to see when we really had a center!"
So it seems even the Laker faithful are undecided on how Bynum fits on the team and his place in the Lakers' future. While it's true that Bynum is a promising young center, with a size and length that is envied by most teams in the NBA, he is also severely injury-prone, having missed a large number of games the past three seasons, and currently recovering from his third knee surgery in the past three years, and the second on his right knee.
It seems to be an annual pre-season ritual for optimistic Lakers fans to believe this year is the year that Bynum will finally be able to make it through both the regular season and the playoffs without suffering a major injury. Especially one that would either take him out of the playoffs completely, like in 2008 when the Lakers lost the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics, or limit his minutes and agility on the court, like in the past two post-seasons.
No matter how Lakers fans feel about Bynum, however, they are stuck with him until at least 2012, with a Lakers team option for the 2012-13 season, having signed a near-maximum, four-year, $57.4 million contract extension which is guaranteed for the first three years at nearly $42 million.
And reports abound that David Lee, Bynum's agent, will be asking the Lakers for and accepting no less than a maximum contract for Bynum's services after his current extension runs out, which if the Lakers oblige, will make Bynum the team's de facto future franchise player.