Can Andrew Bynum Catapult Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavs into Playoff Contention?
The Cleveland Cavaliers lost 58 games last season, bad enough to land them the first-overall draft pick for the second time in three years. Bad enough to fire the head coach who oversaw those three years, too.
Bold words. Then again, this is the same guy who gushed about making his home in Philly when introduced to the Sixers a year ago. His "How could anything ever go wrong?" attitude should realize by now that things go wrong all of the time.
Cleveland certainly does.
A steady influx of talented, young players has given Cavs fans a blueprint for hope, but precious little to show for it. Life after LeBron has been everything everyone except Dan Gilbert expected it to be.
Now it's Andrew Bynum's turn to change all that—in theory, anyway. Cleveland will make the playoffs this season, and it won't be because of Bynum alone. He'll just have a lot to do with it if everything goes according to plan.
Bynum told reporters he intends to be ready for training camp, ultimately expressing confidence in the organization's plans to return him to action (via the Akron Beacon Journal's Marla Ridenour):
I really believe in the doctors here and in the training staff. I’m in a different place after the surgery. I feel a lot better than I did last year. With time off I’ve been able to get the swelling out. I’m going to be in this gym as much as possible to get my game back to the level that I know I can.
Showing up at training camp is all well and good. After last season, any sign of life is cause for minor celebration. But Bynum's Cavs legacy won't hinge on showing up for training camp. For all the talk about getting healthy, the most important concern going forward is keeping him that way.
Bynum has played more than 65 games just once in his eight-year career. Even if his most recent knee struggles are history, it's hard to feel any better about the future.
The good news is Cleveland has depth. Sneaking into the playoffs might not even require 82 games from their starting center. With bigs like Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller and 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett at his disposal, head coach Mike Brown clearly has options.
If Cleveland gets 50-60 games out of Bynum, you'd still have to like its playoff odds. Playing in the Eastern Conference helps. So does having Kyrie Irving, Jarrett Jack and an up-and-coming Dion Waiters.
Whether the Cavaliers do any damage in those playoffs is an entirely different question. They need Bynum to compete with a legitimate contender. And even then, this is a young roster that's undergone extensive remodeling. It's still another year away from making any noise beyond the first round.
On the Floor
Is Bynum still good? All-Star good? Probably.
He's never depended on particularly elite athleticism, not to the same degree as Dwight Howard or Blake Griffin. Bynum is big, strong and mobile for his size, but he's also skilled. Even if he's not 100 percent, he's still better than most.
The real concern with Bynum isn't how long he's been out. Derrick Rose missed last season too, but no one's panicking about that. The concern with Bynum is that we all assume he's been playing foosball with 12-year-old kids this whole time, lighting his farts on fire and toilet-papering Mitch Kupchak's house.
Derrick Rose is a walking, talking Rocky montage. Andrew Bynum is the NBA version of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. That doesn't mean he won't take the floor and immediately commence domination, but it does leave room for doubt to creep in.
If Bynum returns to form and remains focused, the Xs and Os will be there. Mike Brown coached him in Los Angeles during the 2011-12 season, easily Bynum's best. Brown had no problem getting his big man touches, nearly doubling his field-goal attempts from a season earlier (from 7.6 to 13.3 per game).
Bynum responded, posting 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in over 35 minutes per game.
He could see a similar role in Cleveland. Bynum reasons to be the second or third option in an offense that features Irving, Jack and Waiters. Clearly Cleveland's best scoring option in the post, Bynum will get the ball with his back to the basket and in pick-and-roll situations with Irving and Jack.
Cleveland didn't just add another All-Star. It added a new dimension to its offense along with another huge frame to anchor the defense.
That should be good enough to get the Cavs back to the playoffs, especially with the development of returning talent (e.g. Waiters, Thompson) and the acquisition of new talent (e.g. Jack, Bennett). With an All-Star inside-outside combination, Cleveland moves ahead of marginal playoff teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks.
...And Off the Floor
It's actually a good thing Bynum's never fancied himself a vocal team leader. He may have wanted more touches once upon a time, but that was par for the course in Los Angeles. He still understood his place in the locker room.
Bynum has more experience than Kyrie Irving—including in the postseason, where Irving has none. But make no mistake about it: This is Irving's team.
If anyone's going to supplement his leadership, it'll be Jarrett Jack, a veteran described by former coach Mark Jackson as "a no-nonsense guy with a tremendous voice" (per the San Francisco Chronicle's Rusty Simmons).
You can describe Andrew Bynum in a number of ways, but "no-nonsense" isn't one of them.
Nevertheless, the optimist sees an opportunity for Bynum. He'll be forgiven all manner of past shenanigans if he restores prestige to a franchise that's been reeling since LeBron left. Having won championships in 2009 and 2010, Bynum has more experience winning big games than most 25-year-old players. If he puts it to good use and adopts the role of Irving's right-hand man, we could have a pretty special partnership on our hands.
Likely, I know. Still, the important thing when assessing Bynum's risks is seeing worst-case scenarios for what they are. Fine, maybe he's never going to be Bill Russell—but he's not a team-killer either. And he's certainly not enough of a distraction to derail a legitimate playoff team, if that's indeed what the Cavaliers are.
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