When the Cleveland Cavaliers signed Andrew Bynum to a two-year, $24 million contract, it was heralded by many as a low-risk high-reward deal for a franchise that doesn't exactly have All-Star free agents lining up out the door each offseason. While the upside of the deal has been talked about extensively, what would happen if Bynum were to sit out the entire year, much like he did last season with the Philadelphia 76ers? What about the worst-case scenario?
Can the Cavs still make the playoffs if Bynum isn't healthy?
The 25-year-old center was certainly the biggest addition to the team, but Cleveland also added Jarrett Jack from the Golden State Warriors to bolster its backcourt, and they selected Anthony Bennet with the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. With both players coming off the bench to start the season, and the oft-injured Anderson Varejao—the league-leader in rebounds per game before he was injured—presumably healthy again, the Cavaliers have the most depth to their roster they've enjoyed since the departure of LeBron James.
But is that enough?
The roster has improved, yes, but it remains to be seen if Bynum—or Varejao, for that matter—will be able to string together a full season. If the team's only other All-Star besides the 21-year-old phenom Kyrie Irving repeats his donuts-across-the-board 2012-13 season, Cleveland's playoff hopes will hinge on a few key aspects.
Anderson Varejao's Health
Is any team's success this season more dependent on injuries than the Cavs? While Bynum is the biggest question mark, Irving and Varejao have had their own struggles with health the past few seasons. While the Cavs now have a competent backup in Jack, Tyler Zeller looked overpowered for much of his rookie campaign while going against starters.
If Varejao can stay healthy, Cleveland will be in good shape.
Per Basketball-Reference, Varejao has played in 31 games or less every season in which he has played 32 minutes per game or more. As an "energy" guy not unlike the Miami Heat's Chris Andersen, Varejao's high-octane style just isn't sustainable with significant minutes over the course of an entire season.
With Bynum, it would seem the 30-year-old Brazilian has the perfect role to play. Without him, coach Mike Brown might need to get more creative with the rotation. So long as his minutes are limited to 30 or less per game, Varejao should be able to survive the season.
If Zeller is starting at the 5 by the end of the season, however, instability down low could send the Cavs back to the lottery.
Mike Brown's Defense
Last season, the Cavaliers allowed 106.9 points per 100 possessions (per ESPN). Only three teams were more ineffective on defense, prompting owner Dan Gilbert to send out a tweet that may have displayed the reasoning for firing head coach Byron Scott and returning Mike Brown to Cleveland.
While the offense needs work as well, the defense from the Cavs was atrocious. Mike Brown has been known for being a defensive-minded coach, illustrating the fact during an introductory press conference (h/t Cleveland Plain Dealer):
We had Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall here, and we were one of the top defensive teams in the league. These guys will figure out how to get on the floor. If they can't figure out they'll have to play defense, they'll be doing what they're doing now [sitting].
Of course, that team also had LeBron James, but his point still makes sense; he can make anyone play defense. Andrew Bynum would definitely make Brown's job easier, but the coach has his eyes on the entire roster.
Consider the case of Chicago in 2010. The Bulls had a promising young guard in Derrick Rose and a middle-of-the-road defense. Since the hiring of Tom Thibodeau as head coach, the team has had the No. 1 defense in the league almost every year.
If Thibodeau can take Chicago from the middle of the pack to the top, it doesn't seem like a stretch for Brown to turn the Cleveland into at least a respectable defensive team.
The Maturation of Kyrie Irving
With or without Bynum, this iteration of the Cleveland Cavaliers is only going to go as far as Kyrie Irving takes them.
Fresh off a 23-point outing at the Team USA intrasquad scrimmage, in which Irving clearly looked like the best player on the floor, the 21-year-old point guard has seemingly limitless potential. He's been named Rookie of the Year, an All-Star and now he looks like a favorite to be Team USA's newest member. There's still one thing he has yet to achieve, however.
A playoff berth.
It doesn't take a genius to realize that Irving was drafted into a difficult situation, but after a few years, in which he has said he had "a lot of growing up to do," the All-Star's team finally looks poised to make a leap.
If he shores up his defense and continues to improve on offense, Irving could carry this team to the playoffs, with or without Andrew Bynum.
The last three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference are wide open, and the Cavs have put a target on claiming one. With a revamped bench featuring the No.1 pick in the draft, a combo guard who last played in the Western Conference Semifinals and a 19-year-old who averaged 19.0 points per game on 56-percent shooting for the Russian national team, one thing is clear:
You'll see Andrew Bynum in the playoffs. He might be in a suit, but he'll be there.
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