- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

Well, the Los Angeles Lakers can finally get the awful taste of sending now two-time All-Star Caron Butler to the District in exchange for 2001 draft bust Kwame Brown out of their mouths.

The Lakers, who take on the Wizards at noon at Verizon Center, likely would’ve been reminded yet again by the Washington fans, and final box score, of what a steal of a deal Washington made in 2005.

But now that won’t happen.

The Lakers shipped Brown and his 5.7 points and 5.7 rebounds game, along with Javaris Crittenton, two first-round picks and the draft rights to Marc Gasol, to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for 2006 All-Star Pau Gasol.

The trade will give Los Angeles a lineup that includes Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Gasol and, when he returns from a dislocated knee cap some time next month, Andrew Bynum and instantly increases the Lakers’ chances of contending for a championship.

But while the trade produced plenty of buzz, the Wizards remained nonchalant.

It’s unlikely Gasol will be active today because he had to fly to Los Angeles yesterday to take a physical and hasn’t had time to practice in the Lakers’ triangle offense.

And Gasol or no Gasol, the Lakers are Bryant.

“The biggest task is No. 24 He’s been playing phenomenally well right now,” Wizards forward Antawn Jamison said. “In my eyes he’s the MVP as far as the way he’s been playing and that team’s success is because of him.

“And, he’s one of the best — if not the best in the league — so we gotta find a way to make it difficult for him because he’s rolling right now and make him take some tough shots.”

Bryant, who last summer begged the Lakers to either sign or trade for players to help them contend for a title — even if it meant shipping out Bynum, in whom Bryant had little confidence — or allow him to pursue a trade to a team where he could have a better chance of winning a championship.

The Lakers refused to agree to deals that included sending Bynum and other pieces to New Jersey, Indiana or Minnesota for either Jason Kidd, Jermaine O’Neal or Kevin Garnett, respectively. And they refused to let go of Bryant.

Bynum, a 7-foot, 285-pound third-year player out of high school, ended up showing why management didn’t want to part with him, averaging a career-high 13.1 points and 10.2 rebounds this season.

The combination of Bynum’s improved play, the maturation of the Lakers’ other young players, the addition of Derek Fisher and a healthy Odom have given Bryant a better than expected supporting cast.

Bryant himself is having one of his finest seasons, averaging 28.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.91 steals, and the Lakers (29-16) are second in the Pacific Division.

The Lakers have cooled somewhat as of late, however. They were 25-11 before Bynum went down on Jan. 13 and 4-5 since.

Bryant on Friday scored 46 points, his second-highest total of the season, in a 121-101 win over Toronto, which went 1-1 against Washington last week. So even without Bynum or with Gasol, the Lakers remain a threat because of Bryant.

“I’m not even sure we’ll see Pau Gasol,” Wizards center Brendan Haywood said. “But we can’t worry about that. We’ve gotta go out there, play our best game and try to slow down Kobe a little bit, because he’s been playing great this year, so limit him and try to get the victory.”

Boosting the spirits of the Wizards — losers of four of their last six — is the hope that they will have Butler back in the lineup today after he sat out the last three with a strained left hip flexor.

Today’s game

LOS ANGELES LAKERS AT WASHINGTON WIZARDS

When: Noon

Where: Verizon Center

TV/radio: CSN, AM-980

Probable starters: Lakers — F Vladimir Radmanovic, F Lamar Odom, C Ronny Turiaf, G Derek Fisher, G Kobe Bryant. Wizards — F Antawn Jamison, F Caron Butler, C Brendan Haywood, G Antonio Daniels, G DeShawn Stevenson.

Injuries: Lakers — Trevor Ariza (foot), Andrew Bynum (knee), Pau Gasol (back), Chris Mihm (foot). Wizards — C Etan Thomas (heart surgery), G Gilbert Arenas (knee).

Outlook: In their last meeting, the Lakers beat the Wizards 118-102 as Bryant outscored Arenas 39-37. The meeting before that, Arenas outscored Bryant 60-45 as Washington won 147-141 in overtime. But Arenas won’t play this time, so the Wizards will look to former Lakers forward Caron Butler, whom they hope can return from a three-game absence to give them the offensive punch they’ve lacked during a 1-2 stretch. Butler, who has made a franchise record 70 straight foul shots, took part in a shootaround yesterday and is listed as a game-time decision. … Bryant has averaged 25.7 points in 18 career games against the Wizards.

Mike Jones

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