- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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For months the Los Angeles Lakers have waited and wondered about Andrew Bynum. Patiently, because they had no other choice. Carefully, because they don't want to have to wait and wonder about their young center again anytime soon.
This process has become an annual ritual the Lakers would prefer to forsake.
Bynum's injuries have been so frequent, they are almost predictable. His delayed returns have become so predictable, they are growingly frustrating.
Everyone feels for the kid. It's not his fault he keeps suffering these injuries.
But his extended absences have so frequently put the Lakers in bad spots --overtaxing big men Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom -- you have to ask whether Bynum is really worth the $13.8 million the Lakers are paying him this season?
No, actually, you don't.
Had you going there for a minute?
Nodding your head and making you want to fire up the trade machine to see what the Lakers could get for Bynum in a trade?
Stop. Fire up the trade machine if you want. It's fun. I get it. But don't go too far down that track. Bynum shouldn't be going anywhere.
Besides that the Lakers were planning on paying Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic almost as much as they're paying Bynum this year (Phew! Got out of that one somehow...), Bynum is the reason every other team in the NBA has spent the last three seasons trying to keep up with the Lakers.
He and Gasol have caused a paradigm shift in the league since they were joined together in 2008. It used to be that NBA teams needed one franchise big man. Now they need two.
It would be nice if Bynum was always healthy, but even if he's only healthy for part of every year it's enough. Simply put, Bynum makes the Lakers different from every other team in the league.
"Of course he's worth it," said one Western Conference executive who would only speak about a specific player on a condition of anonymity. "Even if Andrew Bynum just plays from April 20 to June 20 every year, he'd be worth it.
"Honestly, he's the difference between the Lakers getting knocked out in the second or third round of the Western Conference playoffs and winning the NBA title.
"And even if you want to look at it financially, he's still worth it. The money they make in those extra rounds of the playoffs basically covers his salary."
It's true that Bynum's extended absences have put too much of a strain on Gasol and Odom. Neither of them could hold up for an entire season under these conditions.
The strain has been noticeable in their play and production. In the 18 games Gasol has played more than the 37 minutes he averaged the past two seasons, he is shooting 45.3 percent from the field. In the six games he played less than 37 minutes, Gasol is shooting 74 percent from the field.
But as long as Gasol hasn't sustained any permanent damage to his hamstring during this stretch, things should improve pretty quickly now that Bynum is back and Joe Smith is coming to town.
Former Clippers coach Kim Hughes said simply getting Bynum back on the court, even in a limited capacity, should immediately snap the Lakers out of their recent funk.
"Bynum is going to struggle for a while once he comes back," Hughes said. "It takes a while to get in sync.
"But I think after three or four games, the Lakers are going to be playing so well, people will forget they even went through this rough stretch.
"It's just his length and the defense he brings. They don't have that right now. But when he's in there, all of a sudden Odom --who has had a terrific year so far -- can come off the bench and have second-line guys guarding him.
"It makes the Lakers the best team in the league again. Say what you want about Miami, I still think the Lakers are the best team."
Besides taking pressure off Gasol and Odom, Bynum helps transform the Lakers into a premier defensive team with his length, shot-blocking and rebounding ability.
"He's unbelievably important," another Western Conference front office source said. "If you have two high-quality big men that are good defenders like Bynum, Gasol and Odom all are, it ultimately makes you a good defensive team.
"Let's say Bynum goes to block a shot. Who goes to help his man? On other teams, it might be a wing or a guard. But for the Lakers it's Pau, another big."
Bynum's presence, the front office source said, has forced every other team in the league to try and bolster their front court just to be able to match up with the Lakers.
Moves like Orlando's re-signing of Marcin Gortat, Boston's acquisition of Jermaine O'Neal and Shaquille O'Neal and Portland's trade for Marcus Camby can all be read, in one way or another, as a reaction to Bynum's effect on the Lakers.
"All you have to do is look at the three teams to make the last two Finals -- the Lakers, Boston and Orlando," the source said. "What's the common theme? They've all got several dominant bigs.
"Teams have tried to go small against the Lakers. Teams like Phoenix will run a 1/5 pick-and-roll with a 4-man on the perimeter to force Bynum or Gasol to pop out and guard a 4-man on the perimeter. Teams have tried that.
"But in the end, it becomes a game of possessions. The Lakers will get many more possessions because their rebounding rate --both offensively and defensively -- is incredible with both those guys on the floor. They get them 10 more possessions a game."
It hasn't been easy to wait for Bynum to return. His return has been pushed back so many times, it became silly to even post updates.
The Lakers just had to wait and wonder when their young center would feel good enough to return.
Patiently, because there was no other option.
Happily, because he's worth it.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann