With the Dwight Howard saga having finally reached its conclusion after 20 months of cold sweats and night terrors and most of the remaining unrestricted free agents having landed contracts, the most intriguing player still on the market is Andrew Bynum.
The oft-maligned and oft-injured center represented a source of secondary intrigue from the moment free agency began. It was clear that no team would go after Bynum until the dust settled on Howard and, to a lesser extent, Josh Smith. But now that Howard is a Houston Rocket and Smith is a Detroit Piston, teams with cap space are going to take a long, hard look at Bynum.
Recent reports suggest they already have. The Dallas Mavericks and Cleveland Cavaliers have joined the fray for the 25-year-old big man (h/t ESPN's Marc Stein), who missed his first (and presumably only) season with the Philadelphia 76ers last season. The Atlanta Hawks have also given Bynum some cursory thoughts, though they seem more focused on landing Monta Ellis, per Stein.
There could be more teams coming down the pike—sign-and-trades are still available with the 76ers—but, for now, the top contenders are Dallas and Cleveland. Both, from an organizational and Bynum perspective, make sense.
The Mavericks have struck out each of the past two offseasons landing top free agents, this year Howard and last Deron Williams. Their organizational answer should have been to tank and start a rebuilding process, but Mark Cuban has made that clear his team will only reload. Jose Calderon signed a four-year pact with Dallas last week, and the team still has plenty of cap space remaining. ESPN's Marc Stein and Tim MacMahon reported that Dallas could offer a four-year deal worth $45 million, though that could change with one more offensive signing.
Cleveland, meanwhile, seems steadfast in only offering a one-year deal should Bynum choose to go that route. The Cavaliers are not only looking to make a playoff push, but also keep their cap sheet clean for next summer—ostensibly for a run at bringing back LeBron James. Cleveland has about $15 million in cap space for 2013-14, which is $5 million more than what Dallas can offer in the first year of a deal.
There is a school of thought that taking a "prove it" contract, which would ostensibly set him up for a long-term deal, is exactly what Bynum should do. Bynum is unquestionably a max player when healthy, perhaps the most dominant big man in the entire game.
If Bynum plays up to expectations and stays on the floor, he gets that max deal and boom—everyone's happy, right?
When negotiating his contract this summer, Bynum and his representation should have nothing on their minds but getting the most guaranteed money over the life of that deal as possible. If that's a team offering him $35 million over four years instead of the $15 million he could theoretically get in one from Cleveland, the former deal is the only one he should listen to.
The reason is simple. It's the same reason that teams are so hesitant to give him a long-term deal in the first place: No one knows how much longer Andrew Bynum's body can hold up.
In an ideal world, Bynum comes back from his season-long knee injury and returns to 2011-12 form. Unfortunately unicorns and the ends of rainbows don't exist in the NBA. Believe me, I know. I've looked. Twice.
Over his eight-year NBA career (feel free to feel old), Bynum has played in 392 of a possible 640 games. That's 61.2 percent for those of you not mathematically inclined—the equivalent of 50 games per season over an 82-game campaign. He's missed at least 25 games in five of his eight seasons and missed fewer than 10 contests just twice.
This isn't someone who has run on a string of bad luck. Bynum's knees were reported to have shown degeneration this past season in Philadelphia. That means they'll never—regardless of how long Bynum sits out or trains or forgoes bowling—return to 100 percent.
Remember the last superstar with a degenerative knee condition? His name was Brandon Roy. He was the NBA's rookie of the year in 2007, made three straight All-Star appearances from 2008-10 and was named to two All-NBA teams. He had to retire just one full season after making his last All-Star appearance, walking away at just 26 years old. Roy eventually made a comeback with the Minnesota Timberwolves last season, which lasted just five games.
Roy also got paid.
The Trail Blazers will cut checks for more than $32 million over the next two seasons to Roy, who will have not played for them in four full calendar years once the deal ends. An insurance company could choose to pick up some of that cash since Roy's comeback was derailed by injuries and it's not quite a Bobby Bonilla contract, but that deal has hampered Portland and taken a chunk out of Paul Allen's checkbook as well. Minnesota even paid him $5.1 million for the five games he played last season.
The degeneration reports were unconfirmed by Bynum or his camp. They obviously could have been mistaken, though one has to assume Bynum would have vehemently denied the reports if they were. Until then, it's only fair to assume Bynum's knees are degenerative—meaning his body is a bomb that could detonate at any minute.
History, both recent and past, is littered with players whose careers have gone off a cliff due to knee problems. Amar'e Stoudemire was the pre-Carmelo Anthony savior of the New York Knicks. Now he's an albatross that the team would give up for a slice of pizza and a promise to buy the next JD and the Straight Shot album. Dwyane Wade has gone from one of the five best players in the league three years ago to drawing comparisons to LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers teammates during this season's playoffs.
Knee problems do not go away. At least not ones like Bynum's. They fester. They rot at the core of your body, breaking down the remainder of your body as you try to adjust and recover.
All of these are reasons I wouldn't give Bynum more than a one-year deal from now through the end of his career. In the NBA, one-year deals are essentially free passes. Teams under the cap can sign them to hit the salary floor and roll over their space until next summer—it's the Cavaliers' situation to a T.
There is minimal risk and no harm in an NBA owner giving Bynum a one-year deal. The risk—Bynum missing the whole season and becoming a looming storyline—is relatively minor. Philadelphia concentrated so hard on Bynum missing time mostly because there was little else to concentrate on.
If a team like Cleveland—one with a young superstar in Kyrie Irving and burgeoning talents elsewhere—were to give Bynum a one-year deal, he'd either be a beloved figure or "the reason" the Cavs failed to make the playoffs.
But for Bynum, there is no benefit to these one-year pacts. You can say it's to prove himself, but what if he's physically unable to do so? Taking one-year deals or ones unguaranteed after the first season is essentially living life as an NFL player. No one wants to live life as an NFL player—just ask NFL players.
Should Bynum find he's only getting those NFL-like, year-to-year deals, then he can look at the individual situations. Going to Cleveland would allow him to limit his minutes and possibly be an overarching reason the Cavaliers make the playoffs for the first time since LeBron took his talents to South Beach. Dallas would offer a starring role next to Dirk Nowitzki, who finally recovered from his own knee problems down the stretch last season.
Until that back-against-the-wall situation comes up, though, money means everything. It's often eye-roll-inducing when a player says he has to do "what's best for his family." In this case, Bynum would actually mean it. He's made more money than any of us could ever dream of making already, but this could be his last chance at hitting an NBA jackpot.
Could anyone blame him for taking it?
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