How Far Away Are Cleveland Cavaliers from Being Legitimate Contender with Bynum?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2013

The Cleveland Cavaliers still have a long way to go.

Signing Andrew Bynum was a no-brainer; it was the right decision.

One could, and should, even argue that Bynum was a steal. At two years, the second of which is a team option, and $24 million, only $6 million of which is guaranteed, there's absolutely no risk involved.

Cleveland wasn't headed anywhere special next season anyway. Well aware of what's at stake leading into next summer, the Cavs had no intention of becoming players in a current free-agency class comprising overpriced and overrated "elites."

Much like the Milwaukee Bucks are making it known they're all Andrew Wiggins everything—seriously Luc Mbah a Moute for two second-round picks?!?!?—the Cavs have made it clear their eyes are fixated on the summer of 2014. On LeBron James. And every other legitimate superstar who will be available.

Not that it was going to be the worst team in the NBA. If Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao were able to remain healthy, Jarrett Jack played like he did with the Golden State Warriors and Dion Waiters became more efficient, hovering around .500 wasn't out of the question.

Securing a playoff berth, let alone contending for a title, wasn't a realistic expectation to set, though. Even in a constantly fluctuating Eastern Conference, the Cavs didn't have enough pieces to guarantee anything beyond a better record than last season.

But that was alright, because you know, 2014 and stuff.

Then Bynum fell into their lap. Literally, he fell. Nothing panned out with the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks. According to ESPN's Chris Broussard, neither team officially tendered him a formal offer. So he landed in Cleveland—where nothing has changed.

To be sure, the Cavs' roster has changed and their ceiling for next season and beyond has been elevated, but only slightly.

Bynum isn't going to bring the Cavs much closer to contending for a championship. Or give them an edge in their pursuit of LeBron. There's no way the Cavs are expecting him to either.

Look at the contract, at how incentive-laced it is. Cleveland is skeptical, just like the rest of us. It has to be. Bynum's knees are jello, they're shot.

There's a reason he wouldn't work out for any teams during free agency—it was a smart business decision. If he didn't step foot on the court, he couldn't damage his market value more than he already did.

To which I say: For real?

It's difficult for me to get excited about a player who maximized his earning potential by not showing what he could still do on the floor. Refusals to step foot on the court tell us he's either not ready or not confident enough in his abilities, or both. Forgive me for not ignoring the blatant red flag that is.

Still, this is a good move. That contract gives the Cavaliers every out possible. Then there's always the potential upside to consider.

Bynum was fresh off his first career All-Star selection when he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. He averaged a career-high 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game during the lockout-truncated 2011-12 campaign, becoming just the 13th player in NBA history to put up at least 18 points, 11 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game before his 25th birthday. 

It's not inconceivable to believe that Bynum could put up similar numbers again in Cleveland. He's notoriously disengaged and evasive, nonchalance that is often depicted as indifference to the game, as if he never had anything to play for. 

Well, now he has something to play for.

Tens, potentially hundreds, of millions of dollars are at stake for Bynum. Last summer, it was just assumed he would receive a max contract. It was a given. Fast forward less than a year, and all that earning potential is on the line. If there were ever a time he was motivated, it's going to be now.

While that matters, while a heightened sense of accountability is important, it's not everything. 

Talented big men have become a necessity in the NBA. There's a common belief that capable towers are rare commodities, that they're a luxury, whose additions instantly mold their respective team into a contender, which just isn't true.

Not even the Miami Heat were able to get by without Chris Andersen. Teams need strong centers to lead their charge on the glass and defensive end.

Great big men make the difference, and even then, sometimes it isn't enough. Dwight Howard couldn't carry the Los Angeles Lakers out of the first round. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph couldn't bring the Memphis Grizzlies to steal a game from the San Antonio Spurs.

Cleveland is in a different situation because Bynum actually is a luxury. The Cavs weren't expecting to have him. They were prepared to go into battle with Anderson Varejao by his lonesome. Whatever Bynum gives them is extra.

Believing that he'll provide enough out the gate is a stretch. This is a guy who hasn't played basketball in over a year, who will find himself bruising against equally as physical behemoths in Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah. 

Once again, this remains a good move, because of what Bynum can do. Soon enough, however, it's going to become about what he can't do.

Honestly, do you believe he's going to be great, better or comparable to Howard? Especially next season?

Of course not. He can't propel the Cavs to a title immediately, maybe even ever.

Digest the following career per-game averages:

Player A5.210.151.912.29.21.6
Player B4.78.256.611.77.81.6
Player C5.09.851.

Player A is Andrew Bogut, Player B is Andrew Bynum, and Player C is Emeka Okafor. Their career averages are similar, yet Bynum, and his one All-Star selection, have been made out to be great, to be a championship pillar.

Two titles don't justify the hype Bynum has generated. Playing alongside Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant was a gift, whether he's prepared to admit it or not. One All-Star-worthy year proves nothing. In the best season of his career, he was unable to push the Lakers out of the second round of the playoffs.

And he's supposed to help lure LeBron back to Cleveland? Puh-lease.

After seeing his title defense nearly go up in flames courtesy of a fading Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, LeBron isn't going to join a team whose third most important piece is a center who has missed nearly 40 percent of his career.

Bynum's latest knee injury isn't some unfortunate anomaly. Of 640 possible regular-season games—including last season—he's appeared in just 392. Those knees of his have barely withstood anything over the past eight years. Bursts of durability and subsequent effectiveness are primarily what has kept him out of the Greg Oden conversation.

LeBron isn't going to reunite in Cleveland to play alongside that, a more glorified version of Oden. If he returns to the Cavs, Bynum won't be there. Mark my words. He'll have been a rental.

Which is fine. We've already assessed the risks involved for Cleveland and there are none. The Cavs can move on and not think twice.

This remains a good move. Fooling ourselves into believing this changes anything long term isn't.

The Cavs still made improvements this offseason. Moving forward with Earl Clark, Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson, Irving, Varejao, Waiters, Jack and Bynum makes them a better team. It puts them in the postseason conversation, but not the title-contention discussion.

They're still one 2014 free-agency coup away from getting there.

Just like they were before Bynum.



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