Nobody really knows whether or not Andrew Bynum's days as a dominant center are over. After he missed hundreds of games in his career and eventually sat out the entire 2012-13 season with knee injuries, it's fair to wonder if the big man is damaged beyond repair.
But here's the thing: If Bynum actually can get his body right, he's going to be a franchise-altering force for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavs are betting that the big man can return to health, but they're at least hedging that wager by guaranteeing only $6 million of the two-year, $24 million deal they made with Bynum. That contract is somewhat emblematic of Bynum as a whole, in that it shows he's worth huge dollars if he's healthy, but that it's never smart to assume that'll be the case.
It's been a while since Bynum suited up, but fortunately, his very best year was his final one with the Los Angeles Lakers. That season gives us a recent example of the kind of player Bynum can be.
In that remarkable 2011-12 campaign, he displayed all of the incredible talent and potential that made him a starter in the 2012 NBA All-Star game and a member of the 2012 All-NBA Second Team.
But before we get into the statistical breakdowns and game film that show how ridiculously good Bynum can be when he's playing at full strength, we have to first touch on the fragility that could prevent him from ever returning to form.
Those Tricky Knees
Bynum's busted knees have made him such a regular in operating rooms and rehabilitation clinics that he's probably on a first-name basis with just about every surgeon and physical therapist in the country.
After playing brilliantly in 2011-12, Bynum ended up on the Philadelphia 76ers as part of the deal that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers. Almost immediately, things looked bad.
Bynum was diagnosed with a bone bruise in September, 2012, and then he tore some loose cartilage while bowling (yes, bowling) in November. In March, Bynum went under the knife again for a procedure to clean out loose bodies in both knees, ending his season with the Sixers before it ever got started (per Jason Wolf of USA Today).
All told, Bynum has lost 248 games to injury, nearly 40 percent of his career. For the visually inclined, here's what that looks like:
On the bright side, all of that time off has had a really positive effect on his bowling skills:
Kidding. I have no idea what Bynum can do on the lanes. One thing's for sure, though: He's not afraid to bowl hurt.
So that's the big, fat caveat with Bynum. He's great when he's healthy, but he hasn't been able to get off of the trainer's table for a huge portion of his career. With that in mind, here's what the big man brings when he's got two functional knees.
Pure, Unadulterated Power
At 7'0" and a listed weight of 285 pounds, Bynum is a physical monster and there simply aren't any other centers in the league who can match up with his combination of size and strength.
When he's engaged, Bynum utilizes his bulk to work his man deep into the post before receiving an entry pass. And if Bynum receives the ball further out than he'd like, it's shockingly easy for him to move even the biggest defenders backward with just a couple of dribbles.
As you can see, Bynum had no trouble uprooting Marc Gasol, a massive big man who many regard as the best interior defender in the game.
Usually, when scouts laud a player's ability to get to favorable spots on the floor, they're talking about point guards who can penetrate. In this instance, it's Bynum's knack for working his way into point-blank range that makes him so devastating on offense.
Raw strength also allows Bynum to finish through contact like few others.
Because he's able to work his way underneath the basket with such ease, Bynum often finds himself trying to elevate with two or three defenders hanging all over him. Here's a clip of a typical post-up possession for Bynum:
Pretty rough, huh?
Despite the countless bumps, hacks and grabs Bynum suffers at the rim, the big man converts his attempts at a remarkably efficient rate.
In 2011-12, he hit 70 percent of his shots in the restricted area (per NBA.com). Among players with at least 300 tries from that range, only LeBron James, Tyson Chandler, Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant were more effective. Bynum drew shooting fouls on 11.6 percent of his post-up tries in his last season with the Lakers, finishing with a whopping total of 47 and-1 plays (per Synergy, subscription required).
He's a strong dude.
Bynum's not just a bruiser down low; he also features a better-than-you-remember array of skilled moves in the lane.
Jump hooks with either hand are no problem for Bynum, and he's comfortable turning over either shoulder from the left and right blocks. His footwork is excellent when he has the space to operate, and defenders' constant fear of a drop-step makes it exceedingly easy for Bynum to flip lightly contested hooks right over the outstretched arms of opponents.
What's even more impressive is the aesthetic appeal of Bynum's little-used turnaround jumper. From about 6-12 feet, it's a real weapon that very few defenders have the length to bother. Bynum possesses the agility of a much smaller player, which allows him to turn quickly, square up and float an unbelievably soft shot toward the rim.
Full disclosure: The aesthetics are just about the only pleasing thing about Bynum's turnaround jumper. The results hardly measure up to the way it looks, as Bynum made just 38 percent of his shots in the non-restricted portion of the lane in 2011-12 (per NBA.com).
As you might imagine, his shot chart from two years ago verifies the notion that Bynum should probably stick to close-range attempts.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Bynum's offensive game is his ability to dust other big men up and down the floor. Of course, his speed is usually overlooked because he only occasionally chooses to turn on the jets.
Bynum has a terrible habit of loafing, and he sometimes refuses to run down the floor at all. But when he smells a fast-break bucket, he's off like a shot, outrunning every player on the floor on his way to the rim.
Watch as he turns away a weak attempt, immediately darts out on the breakaway and rockets past everyone for an easy dunk.
That would have been an impressive 94-foot dash for any player, but for the hulking Bynum, it's downright scary.
If you noticed, Bynum's excellent hands were also on display in that last clip. Running the floor doesn't count for much if a big man can't hang onto the ball when he gets it. Bynum excels at receiving a pass on the run and finishing smoothly. Even at a dead sprint, you'll rarely see Bynum bobble the rock on the catch.
Over the Top
NBA centers can generate an awful lot of offense if they're capable lob-catchers (just ask Tyson Chandler), and Bynum is one of the best. He's not exceptionally springy thanks to those cranky knees, but because of his ridiculous length and sure hands, Bynum has the ability to lay in tough passes softly or cram home good ones with authority.
He takes up so much space in the paint that it's difficult for defenders to get close enough to bother alley-oop feeds. Even if the toss is offline, Bynum's reach allows him to go up and get errant passes while barely leaving the ground.
So, if you'd like to terrify the rest of the Eastern Conference, just mention the thought of Kyrie Irving slicing through the defense and lofting a pinpoint lob to a waiting Bynum. That ought to do it.
That Whole "Defense" Thing
Bynum is an interesting defensive case because he has everything an elite stopper needs, but for some reason, he can't (or won't) utilize all of those tools consistently.
Size, quickness and length are all there, but a combination of apathy and lethargy makes for a defensive scouting report that is more frustrating than anything else.
Unsurprisingly, Bynum is a good shot-blocker. When he's fully attentive, his reaction times are startlingly quick and his length allows him to reach shots other big men can't. But it's far too easy to catch Bynum disengaged or flat-footed.
And indecisiveness makes his pick-and-roll defense somewhat spotty as well.
Note here how Bynum hasn't blitzed Tony Parker, but he also hasn't dropped back into the lane far enough to coax a shaky jumper from the point guard. Caught in no-man's land, Bynum allows Parker to whip a quick pass back over to Tim Duncan—who set the original screen—for a ridiculously easy look.
In situations like this, Bynum has to either commit to coming out hard on Parker or sagging off so Parker's man can recover. What he can't do is linger somewhere in between. There's a difference between playing the pick-and-roll conservatively (lots of teams do that) and playing it indecisively. Bynum has a habit of doing the latter, which is why opponents frequently seek to involve him in such sets.
In some sense, Bynum is a victim of his own talents. Seeing him move around the floor with such great agility when he wants to makes it hard to understand why he's not a more disruptive force on D. Guys like Joakim Noah utilize their length and quickness aggressively, attacking opponents and forcing them into difficult situations.
Bynum's defense is more, well...defensive.
If you only looked at Synergy's rankings, you'd assume the Bynum was a fantastic defender. In 2011-12, he ranked in the top 20 percent against isolation sets, pick-and-rolls and post-up plays. The truth is that he's pretty good overall, but the individual numbers are somewhat misleading because they don't account for the kind of lapses in attention that take him out of plays entirely.
An engaged Bynum is an excellent defender. The problem is that his attentiveness comes and goes unpredictably. Overall, the Lakers posted a defensive rating of 100.9 when Bynum was on the floor in 2011-12. When he sat, that figure dipped to 101.7 (per NBA.com).
So Bynum made L.A. a slightly better defensive team when he played, but anybody who watched him knows that the positive differential would have been much more pronounced if Bynum had given maximum effort more often.
A Few Good, Old-Fashioned Knocks
I've at least alluded to some of these already, but no scouting report would be fair without a quick survey of Bynum's most glaring flaws.
Really, his shortcomings fall neatly into two basic categories: his lack of maturity and his lack of toughness.
Bynum's immaturity is responsible for his complaints to officials, his tendency to sulk and his penchant for doling out frustration fouls. The latter part of his repertoire has probably earned him the most criticism, and rightfully so. Whining and laziness never hurt anybody, but Michael Beasley and J.J. Barea know how dangerous Bynum's tantrums can be.
It's tempting to call Bynum a baby (see? I just did), but it's not entirely accurate, because no baby has the capacity to severely injure opposing players when he gets fussy.
Bynum's toughness deficiency shows up most often when he avoids confrontation on the boards and on defense. It's as though he sometimes forgets how big and strong he is. Lack of effort is often a simultaneous culprit, but Bynum has a maddening tendency to wilt when rebounding battles heat up.
Instead of getting into the scrum and throwing his weight around, Bynum often chooses to stay out of the mix, flat-footed and disengaged. Of course, his length and timing still resulted in a rebound rate of 18.7, which ranked 12th in the NBA in 2011-12, one slot behind Kevin Love (per ESPN).
Offensively, Bynum has the ball stripped far too often by smaller players. He generally holds onto the rock for far too long, which allows secondary defenders time to collapse on him. When that happens, Bynum often panics, which resulted in a turnover rate of 12.9 percent in 2011-12 (per ESPN)—much too high for a player who almost never logs assists.
Bynum must clean up his tendency to expose the ball in traffic, and when he does find himself wrestling with small players for possession, it'd be nice to see him use his strength to simply rip the ball away.
The Whole Package
Andrew Bynum was the second-best center in the NBA when he was last healthy, and if his body holds up, there's no reason he can't re-attain that lofty distinction.
The Cavaliers are a team on the rise, and Bynum has the skills to lend their upward trajectory some serious momentum. There will be bouts of maddening frustration when he loafs, complains or fails to put forth a real effort. But that's just part of the bargain with Bynum.
Cavs head coach Mike Brown coaxed a career year out of the big man two seasons ago in Los Angeles, so he knows better than anyone how valuable the mercurial center can be. Until Bynum proves he's healthy and willing to commit to playing hard all the time, there's no way to know how he'll work out in Cleveland.
Doubts abound, but one thing's for certain: When he wants to be, Bynum is a star.
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