A few days ago, TNT officially announced the hiring of Shaquille O'Neal as part of their team of analysts. (For a smorgasbord of opinion on how he'll fare, click here.) Among the topics Shaq discussed during his introductory teleconference was Yao Ming's premature retirement, which delved into a commentary on Dwight Howard:
"The beasts are now gone, the Goliaths are now gone, so that leaves Dwight Howard out there by himself. So if he doesn't win two or three championships, I'll be very disappointed, because he has no competition out there now. None. Zero."
Well, if you buy the long-standing rumors about Andrew Bynum being "untouchable", that's news to Jim Buss.
Obviously, Shaq may have been erring on the side of hyperbole while making a specific point about Howard, undoubtedly the NBA's best center and a player with whom he's shared a testy relationship. Then again, he may just think there ain't much doing at the 5 these days in the NBA beyond the "other" Superman. In any event, whether or not you agree with Shaq's omission of Drew, those comments do underscore a certain reality: The competition behind Howard is in fact pretty thin.
Bynum may never pass Howard as the preeminent big in the league, but nobody is standing in his way from automatic mention as a close 1a.
Tyson Chandler is an outstanding complementary player, but a complementary player nonetheless. I think Nene is among the more underrated players in the NBA, but you wouldn't build around him. Ditto Andrew Bogut, who's struggled lately to stay healthy. Joakim Noah is a fantastic defender and a beast on the glass, but his offensive game is limited. Brook Lopez is the bizarro-Noah. Chris Kaman is perennially injured. Al Horford is terrific, but undersized as a center. Marc Gasol is rapidly improving and tough as nails, but still not even the best big man on his own team. Emeka Okafor is the dictionary definition of "solid but unspectacular." Marcin Gortat has yet to play an entire season as a starter. Andrea Bargnani will put up 20 while allowing 40. DeMarcus Cousins is talented, but raw and immature.
That's more or less everyone, right?
With Shaq and Yao gone, the stage is set for Bynum to come into a brand new form of credibility. This is about more than making his first All-Star team, which should be a given now that Yao's no longer around. By default, Drew should get the nod as the best remaining center on the highest profile team. It's also about more than his talent, which is obviously high.
What I'm talking about is Bynum's profile, which still remains as much as about being a Laker as his individual skills. As it stands, Drew is undoubtedly -- and rightfully -- viewed as one of the best big men in the league, but I don't quite feel he truly has a persona yet. An identity. And the time is certainly ripe for this particular sea change.
Of course, between the seemingly inevitable injuries, the need to reach yet another level and a potentially brewing push and pull between him and Kobe Bryant, the jump may not be so simple. Still, if next season did end without Shaq either revising his statement or looking painfully foolish for clinging to his original words, it would be nonetheless disappointing on some level.