Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 1/20/12
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is nowhere near the basketball court these days. He has been busy preparing for a visit to Brazil starting Sunday in his first official trip as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department. But the former Lakers center and the NBA's all-time leading scorer still keeps tabs on the Lakers. In particular, Abdul-Jabbar maintains a watchful eye on center Andrew Bynum after working with him as a Lakers special assistant coach from 2005 to 2011. The Lakers (10-6) visit the Orlando Magic on Friday at Amway Center in a game that features a matchup of Bynum and Dwight Howard, who leads NBA centers in points (20.1) and rebounds (15.6) per game. Abdul-Jabbar was reluctant to say which player the Lakers should covet more ahead of the league's trade deadline March 15. "That's hard for me to call," Abdul-Jabbar said Friday in a phone interview with The Times. "I've never seen Dwight Howard play in person. I've only worked with Andrew. I've never seen Dwight up close for a period of time to have a good assessment of him. But the statistics don't lie. He's one of the best in the league and is a very valuable commodity." Abdul-Jabbar raved equally about Bynum and Howard, whom he described as "two great young centers." He lauded Howard's defense, quickness and scoring prowess, though Abdul-Jabbar suggested Howard should improve his 45 shooting mark from the free-throw line. With Bynum boasting career-high averages of 16.3 points and 13.8 rebounds through 12 games, Abdul-Jabbar noted that he "has taken a step forward in trying to be a more important cog in the machine, especially offensively." But he also said Bynum faces plenty of problems handling an increasing number of double-teams. "He has to be aware of where guys are on the perimeter that will take pressure off of him," Abdul-Jabbar said. "After he gets double-teamed, he has to find guys on the perimeter and they need to knock down those shots. That would really present a problem for the teams playing us. That was more or less the scheme we used when I was playing. Luckily I had guys like Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and Byron Scott to pass out to the perimeter. They would knock down those shots and make it miserable for the people trying to double-team me." Bynum hardly has such a strong supporting cast. The Lakers are shooting 25.4 from three-point range, worst in the league. Among the team's high-volume shooters, backup guard Steve Blake leads the Lakers with a 35.4 mark from three-point range. But the Lakers expect him to be sidelined for the next two to three weeks because of damage to cartilage that connects the ribs to the sternum. "The rest of the league has caught up to the Lakers in terms of talent," Abdul-Jabbar said. "There are a number of teams now that have an ability to challenge the Lakers. I think their experience in the playoffs last year was a shock to everybody. The other teams are not sitting still. There's a lot of really good teams that will be out there making their lives miserable for the Lakers. They have their work cut out for them if they're going to be one of the top teams in the league." Abdul-Jabbar, who won five of his six NBA titles with the Showtime Lakers, worked exclusively with Bynum from 2005 to 2011. His duties decreased the last two seasons in part because of Bynum's development and in part because Abdul-Jabbar was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in November 2009. Abdul-Jabbar has since kept his distance from the Lakers after publicly criticizing them last spring for their failure to construct a statue of him. But he says "every day is a blessing" for his health and his role as a cultural ambassador. "My health is great," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I'm doing what the doctors tell me to do. I got to go and get my blood checked regularly and take my meds. If I do that and try to live a healthy lifestyle, the leukemia is not going to keep me from doing most of the things I've done my whole life." -- Mark Medina
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