How Mike Brown, Cleveland Cavaliers Can Make Andrew Bynum an All-Star Again
There were two franchise cornerstone centers among the frontcourt-heavy 2013 NBA free-agent crop.
One, Dwight Howard, didn't just get the red-carpet treatment, he got the red carpet delivered to him. Five different organizations were allotted their own hours-long time slots with the league's current version of Superman, each bringing a contingent of current and former superstars along with key decision-makers to deliver their sales pitch.
Howard entertained them all before finally settling on a four-year, $88 million contract with the Houston Rockets.
The other, Andrew Bynum, was forced to compile his own pitch to sell to potential employers.
After what some have called "degenerative knee problems" kept him sidelined for the entire 2012-13 season, the 25-year-old had to convince teams that there was still some basketball left in his 7'0", 285-pound frame.
Forget the red carpet, Bynum was fortunate just to procure the incentive-laden, two-year, $24 million deal he got from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even that figure is a bit misleading, since Bynum is only guaranteed $6 million in the contract and could spend next summer back in the unemployment line should Cleveland decline his player option for the 2014-15 campaign.
So much has changed in the last 12 months for the player formerly pegged to lead the Los Angeles Lakers out of the Kobe Bryant era. But, while the superstar cards have seemingly been stripped from Bynum's deck, there are several reasons to believe that Cleveland may have just pulled off the hoops heist of the century.
Bynum Has a History with Mike Brown
Bynum wasn't the only one running to C-Town for his roundball rebirth this summer.
After a disastrous season-plus stay with the Lakers, Mike Brown has returned to the city that witnessed his first serving of the five-star life of an NBA head coach. He ran the club from 2005-10, when his 2007 NBA Finals appearance and 2009 Coach of the Year award lost their luster on a front office desperate to appease then-free-agent LeBron James.
Of course, James eventually bolted for the sunny beaches of South Florida, and, after a year away from the game, Brown landed on his feet in L.A. A no-nonsense defensive guru, he inherited another perimeter playmaker in the form of perennial All-Star Kobe Bryant, along with a blossoming big man in Bynum.
The coach and his young, talented center didn't always enjoy the best relationship. Brown was less than impressed when Bynum decided to test his non-existent three-point skills early into an offensive possession late in their first year together.
But even the best relationships don't come without a few bumps in the road, and this one appeared to weather all of its rocky moments. The Lakers finished 16 games above .500 in the strike-shortened season and knocked off the up-and-coming Denver Nuggets in their first-round playoff pairing before falling to the eventual Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference semifinals.
When pressed on the health of their working relationship, Brown told the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan that the pair wasn't close to being the tenuous twosome the media often made them out to be:
Are we on good terms? I hope we've never been on bad terms. I feel like we have a good coach-player relationship, a good person-to-person relationship. I feel like he's respectful to me. I hope he feels that I'm respectful to him.
In the media's eyes, Hollywood hoops are never nearly as entertaining without a real-life soap opera playing out behind closed doors.
But there just wasn't any real substance to this manufactured hostility. So it comes as little surprise that Bynum told Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer that he has a "great" relationship with his current and former coach.
Brown Knows How to Maximize Bynum's Talents
Even if the pair had fundamental differences in their personalities, they'd still be nothing more than the latest evidence of the healing powers of success.
No matter what Bynum thought of Brown as a man, there was no getting around the fact that Brown presided over the most statistically dominant season of Bynum's career. Brown oversaw Bynum's first (and only) All-Star season, a year in which he set career highs in scoring (18.7 points per game) and rebounding (11.8), while handling his heaviest offensive workload to date (13.3 field-goal attempts per game, 23.8 percent usage rate per Basketball-Reference.com).
As a member of the 2005 draft class, Bynum was among the final group of preps-to-pros leapers. On the floor, though, he brings an even more nostalgic feel among seasoned hoops junkies.
He's a back-to-the-basket scorer in an era when those players no longer exist.
With Earl Clark on board, Brown can trot out four perimeter threats to keep defenders at bay and work Bynum into some easy scoring opportunities near the basket. With a dizzying array of post moves at his disposal, Bynum's always one pass away from creating offense on the low block.
Obviously, with scorers like Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters in the backcourt, Brown won't want his offensive sets to rest too heavily on post isolations. But he can take advantage of another productive piece of Bynum's offensive game: his bone-jarring screens.
Bynum's mobile enough to explode out off of those picks when Irving and Waiters can't get around the hedging defender. With willing and capable passing bigs like Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao, look for Brown to utilize the high-low feeds like he did with Bynum and Pau Gasol.
Brown can afford to ease Bynum in on the offensive end, especially if No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett picks up where he left off after his stellar freshman campaign at UNLV.
But the coach won't have that same luxury on the other end of the floor, where the Cavaliers allowed 109.4 points per 100 possessions last season, the fourth-worst defensive rating in the league, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Fortunately, that fact is not lost on Bynum. The first two things Cleveland's new center told Schmitt Boyer he could add to this team were "defense" and "swing protection." For as talented as he on the offensive block, Bynum's painted some of his best masterpieces as a rim-protecting help defender.
The Successes of Coach and Player Are Tied Together
Both Brown and Bynum have at one time been the envy of their respective peers, but each arrives in Cleveland in need of reputation repair.
Brown's defensive pedigree never made it on his cross-country jaunt to Laker Land. In 2011-12, L.A. was nothing more than a mediocre defensive group, giving up 104.4 points per 100 possessions, good for 13th in the NBA.
What's worse is that whatever offensive progress he'd made in Cleveland was lost during that fateful year-plus with the Lakers. Despite having arguably the best scorer in the game in Bryant, the best low-post player in Bynum and the best passing big in Gasol, L.A. posted just the 10th best offensive rating in 2011-12 at 106.0.
Having scorers like Irving and Waiters will help, but without Bynum manning the middle, opposing bigs can easily close off driving lanes without an offensive threat near the basket.
As for Bynum, he just needed a franchise to believe in him. Last summer he was challenging Howard's reign as the best center in the league. This year he's fighting to prove that his isn't the next potentially great career derailed by injury, and that he's not the punchline of the world's worst bowling joke.
To accomplish all of that he needed more than just to have a franchise toss him a low-risk, high-reward reserve gig. He needed a coach to believe that he's ready to be thrown into the lions' den as much as his body will allow, someone like Brown, who didn't waste any time to save him a spot in next season's starting five.
Bynum's not looking for a way to prolong his stay in the league. He's planning on continuing what not too long ago looked like one of the most promising careers of this generation.
He needs Brown to give him a share of the spotlight. The rest is on him or, more specifically, his health.
What Kind of Lasting Power Does this Relationship Have?
This is the million-dollar question for Cavs fans, isn't it?
Not whether James makes his triumphant return next summer. Not whether Nick Gilbert has anymore lottery luck saved up for the stacked 2014 rookie class.
How many games will Bynum play in 2013-14?
As much as Cleveland tried to safeguard this investment, there is no telling what will happen the next time Bynum steps foot on the NBA hardwood. There is no guaranteed return date or even any assurance that that day will ever come.
But the fate of this franchise hangs in the balance until a definitive answer comes to the forefront. Players like Bynum don't often hit the free-agent market, let alone leave it with nothing more than $6 million in guaranteed cash. When healthy, he's every bit as good as Howard, if not better.
He makes for such a smoother transition into superstardom for Irving. He lets players like Clark and Bennett find their permanent homes at the always evolving forward spots. He gives the Cavaliers a chance to gauge others' interest in Varejao, or even allows the team a new opportunity to make the most out of the bruising Brazilian's versatile talents.
Brown's going to give Bynum every chance to recapture his spot at the top of the food chain. And a hungry Bynum is going to feast on everything in front of him for as long as his body holds up.
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