HANG TIME WEST COAST BUREAU — This much is clear Thursday night as the Dwight Howard saga heads toward an exhausting conclusion: The Lakers cannot trust Andrew Bynum.
Too many moments of professional and personal immaturity for someone seven seasons into an NBA career. Too many reasons to be worried about the thought of Bynum as The Face of the franchise in a few years as Kobe Bryant heads into retirement. One too many a squirrely 3-pointer in Oakland and shrugging off the suggestion he took a foolish shot. One too many playoff no-shows in Denver, when entire Lakers seasons are measured by the playoffs.
That has to be it. Howard is the best center in the league, which makes him an upgrade at the position for the Lakers, but Bynum is not that far behind and gaining all the time. Howard is the better defender, Bynum better on offense.
Howard is coming off back surgery, while Bynum, for his long history of medical issues, played 72 of a possible 78 games in the regular season and playoffs last season. Age isn’t an issue — Howard is 27 while Bynum turns 25 on Oct. 27, three days before the Lakers’ season opener. Both are in line for huge contracts, after waiting to become free agents next summer rather than sign extensions now for less money as non-free agents.
That’s not where the difference lies between the two players that makes the Lakers go back on what had been unbending support for Bynum — certainly not after he just put up 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and shot 55.8 percent from the field. They don’t make this deal at this time, with Howard yet to play a game after a delicate medical procedure, unless there is a lack of confidence in where Bynum is headed.
For the longest time, after all, trading Bynum was not even an option. Bryant killed Bynum years ago, absolutely held him up for target practice, screaming for the Lakers to deal the young center, and the front office would not budge. An unproven Bynum would not be offered for Jason Kidd to make Kobe happy. Management sent similar signals ever since: Bynum would not be available for a Chris Paul trade. Bynum would not be available for a Dwight Howard trade. Bynum would not be available, period.
What changed, obviously, is that Bynum did not. They won championships with little contribution as he worked back from injuries, but then, as he turned into a gifted 7-foot, 285-pounder, he remained undependable. He should have stepped on the Nuggets in what should have been a four-game sweep (or 4-1 at the worst).
The real perspective?
By August 2012, Howard was the trustworthy one.
No matter how much Howard botched his Orlando exit, and it was, to be sure, historically bad, there was never a doubt about his level of play. He will protect the rim and rebound with a passion. The Lakers’ problem with their new point guard, Steve Nash, who can easily get beaten off the dribble? It just got smaller.
The Lakers won’t need Howard to be the 20-point scorer of the Orlando days. In Los Angeles, Howard can be the fourth-biggest threat on offense, after Bryant, Nash and Pau Gasol. Which, come to think of it, is pretty good perspective as well.
Giving up Bynum hurts and will be a crusher if Howard’s back problems remain, but for now this is close to a dream outcome of an offseason for the Lakers. Have no serious cap space but get Nash in a sign-and-trade without losing any existing players, a particularly important development for a roster already lacking depth. Get Howard, the best center in the world when healthy. But without, according to reports of the deal that will be completed Friday morning, taking back any of the bad Orlando contracts. And without losing Gasol in any deal.
What a summer. What a moment. All because they need an All-Star center they can trust.