Andrew Bynum's time with the media got off on a reassuring foot when he immediately apologized for a dirty flagrant foul against J.J. Barea, which drew a five-game suspension to start next season. The mea culpa was literally the first thing out of Bynum's mouth, and having reflected on the matter since Sunday, he appeared genuinely disappointed with himself for allowing his emotions to spiral so far out of check. As he explained, his apology wasn't about public perception, criticism from various Laker legends or the league's action, but rather about acknowledging a mistake because it needed to be acknowledged.
Given Bynum's history with throwing elbows at rib cages out of frustration, it would be easy (and frankly, understandable) to be skeptical about his sincerity. But for the time being, the issue has been put to bed.
If only everything else were that simple.
For the first time since 2008, Bynum's summer won't include rehabbing an injury. This positive situation allows him to spend the offseason expanding his game and growing as a player. In a vacuum, this sounds fantastic, but if this season has taught us anything, nothing is ever quite as simple as it may appear on the surface.
The signs of Drew's desire to spread his wings have long been evident. In the past, it was about fourth quarter playing time or early touches. This year, it was the embracing of his role as a defensive anchor, which he in turn viewed as a defensive captaincy of sorts. And today's exit interview made even more evident just how much of a stamp he wants to put on the Lakers.
But on a team with so many established presences (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, among others), is there an inherent ceiling to how big Bynum's role can grow?
How much room is there for Bynum to expand his role offensively, which he insisted "would have to be the case" for this team to flourish next season? Yes, Bynum has steadily honed his post moves and shooting touch, and he's grown into one of the better scoring big men in the league. Still, the Lakers are a team on which Kobe "eats first," Gasol "second," and everyone else gets by on leftover scraps -- according to the buffet line once-vocalized by The Mamba. There is also a decided habit of inexplicably ignoring the post at times.
For Bynum to impact the game the way he thinks would best benefit the Lakers, where will those extra shots be found? Will there be a sea change in the pecking order between him and Gasol -- which many would speculate in any case, given Pau's disastrous postseason -- or can the perfect balance between the two big men be discovered?
The dance feels delicate, although according to the duo in question, mutual domination isn't impossible.
"For me personally, playing with Pau should be easy," affirmed Bynum. "I had a teammate who was also 7-foot in high school in AAU and we worked really well together. High-low. Same type situations. I’m actually used to playing with a guy that’s taller than me or we’re the same size. It works out. Defensively, you’re both able to challenge shots and do things. And offensively, you have an advantage. You should be able to get the offensive rebound."
Gasol can also see the possibilities of more from Bynum, if also the necessary fine tuning.
"To be able to have two post players that can deliver and score, I think it's good, but at the same time, you have to understand spacing and not run over each other. Especially when you also have a guard who likes to post up a little bit, too. So you have to find a certain level of balance."
"We can definitely both be successful in this offense," insisted Bynum. "I think it’s more the team’s confidence in us to handle situations.
Or perhaps the willingness of "that guard who likes to post up a little," for whom scoring is the equivalent of breathing, to sacrifice some shots on his end. This is still Kobe's team and he still fancies himself the primary option. That distinction may not require changing, but the degrees of "primary" would, in order to match Bynum's vision of his best utilization.
There's also the matter of Bynum asserting his vocal presence, as he's grown more inclined to do over the last couple of seasons. This year, he's been the team's most candid critic on several topics. Failure to play inside-out ball. Defensive lapses. Cockiness. Focus issues. Or famously during the playoffs, letting the world in on the permeating "trust issues."
Today, he reiterated previously voiced dissatisfaction with the quality of practices this season. Between the team's collectively older age and injuries, various players, most notably Kobe, weren't able to participate on a regular basis. While Bynum understood the legitimate predicament, he nonetheless maintained that afternoon intensity needed to be cranked up with everybody present and accounted for.
"We have to practice," insisted Bynum. "I can’t address anyone’s health. Certainly, no one can address mine. I haven’t been the most healthy person, but I do know that in order to win, we need practice and we need to be out there going through things together. Everybody. That’s just where that is. That’s the main thing I see that was different from the last two years that we won. Our practice just wasn’t the same."
Whether or not you agree with Bynum or think he's speaking out of school (particularly when it comes to the practice habits of Bryant), the bigger point is him expressing himself. Bynum may be the youngest Laker of import, but the days of treating him like a little kid are clearly done in his mind. Similar to the food chain when it comes to scoring, there's also established leadership on the Lakers. Kobe is the alpha dog. Fisher is the spiritual leader. Odom is the emotional leader. Is there room for another voice on this team?
For so long, the issue of "What happens when Andrew Bynum finally grows up?" was a "good problem" easily tabled, between his age, the players established ahead of him, and the inability to stay healthy. The matter can no longer be sidestepped. Bynum is looking increasingly like the player everyone hoped he could be, which is a double-edged sword in it's own right. As he becomes able to do more, being told he can't, or to wait his turn, becomes more difficult to hear.
The Lakers went through this with Kobe during the Three-peat era. I doubt this situation would grow nearly as volatile (few ever do), but at it's core, the issue is the same. How satisfied will Bynum remain with what might be regarded as a diluted role? Beyond his own desire, does acquiescing him best serve the team? Would he eventually decide greener pastures exist? (And as long as we're considering Bynum's case and the cries for offseason changes, if he couldn't be made happy, is making Dwight Howard happy even possible?)
Considering the kid was drafted as clay to mold into a potential cornerstone, the desire to do more is admirable. But the proverbial "rub" also can't be ignored.