The Lakers reached the NBA Finals last season without Andrew Bynum and may be good enough to get there again this season without him.But when the 21-year-old center is playing well, as he did Sunday in the deciding Game 7 of the second round series against Houston, the Lakers go up a significant notch.They’ll need him in the Western Conference finals against Denver, which is a physical opponent. And they’ll need him in quest of the NBA championship in the next round.When Yao Ming was injured, Houston still beat the Lakers as they had enough inside strength to counteract Pau Gasol. But when confronted by both Gasol and Bynum in the deciding game they were overpowered.Gasol had 21 points and 18 rebounds. It was Bynum’s presence that made this possible. The underrated Luis Scola did fine against Gasol throughout the first six games but couldn’t handle Gasol and Bynum combined in the seventh.Bynum has frustrated the Lakers with inconsistent play since returning from his latest injury just before the playoffs began.There is a theory among some Laker employees that Bynum should be traded. And I’ve also heard them question the wisdom of giving Bynum a $55 million contract last summer.I disagree, reasoning that you don’t give up on a slowly-developing kid with his size and skills. You wait for him, even if it takes several years.Where else would you get a big man with his potential?And if you let Bynum become a free agent, another team would give him that huge contract. Centers with his skills don’t come along very often.It is important to remember that Bynum is the youngest player ever chosen in the NBA draft and also the youngest ever to play in an NBA game. He had just turned 18.Give the Lakers credit for gambling on Bynum when they made him the No. 10 pick in the 2005 draft. The Lakers weren’t a very good team then and needed immediate help. Yet they bypassed established college players to choose a high school kid who’d had injuries and hadn’t even played many games at that level.That’s what scouting is all about. The Lakers felt Bynum’s potential was worth the risk. And they had the courage to make the move.He’s still inexperienced and inconsistent. It wouldn’t be wise to expect consistently fine games from him yet. But on days when his game is clicking and he stays out of foul trouble he’s a handful for the opponent. Phil Jackson is a Hall Of Fame coach who makes decisions about how much Bynum should play. Jackson isn’t counting on a lot of minutes game after game. But he puts Bynum in situations that may be favorable. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.Ideally from the Lakers’ standpoint Bynum would become dominant, stay that way and make a large contribution to numerous championships, not only this one.A lot will depend on him. Does he have the desire to work hard and keep improving?James Worthy shook us up in the Staples Center press room a couple of years ago by saying Bynum will eventually make the Hall Of Fame. Worthy hasn’t been saying that lately.I think Worthy had seen more practices than we writers and was highly impressed with Bynum’s skills. But skills are only part of the equation. The players who work the hardest are usually the ones who reach their potential. Will Bynum be one of those players? Only he can provide the answer.
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