Blueprint for Andrew Bynum to Return to All-Star Form with Cleveland Cavaliers
On the heels of his first All-Star selection and amidst a stellar 2011-12 campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers, Andrew Bynum figured it made sense to shoot a three-pointer from the top of the arc with 16 seconds left on the shot clock and over 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
It was an unsettling reminder that Bynum's problems have never been about injury alone, that both then and now, getting him right requires more than rehabbing those knees. It also had to be one of the reasons L.A. was content to part ways with him despite having no guarantee Dwight Howard would stay.
Thus far, it seems Bynum's young tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers is on the right track both physically and mentally.
According to The Plain Dealer's Mary Schmitt Boyer, Bynum says he's been working out at the Cavs' practice facility ever since he got into town: "I'm there, focused. I'm doing everything I can do to get back. That's what all this is all about for me right now. I just want to play."
The team is saying all the right things, too, and these would all be signs of encouragement were they not all too familiar. Bynum expressed confidence he'd return to the floor back in December, again sounding optimistic a few weeks later.
But this was all coming from the would-be superstar who reportedly hurt himself bowling earlier in November. None of it makes Bynum a bad guy and we'd been remiss to ignore his bad luck.
But going forward for Cleveland, this isn't about assigning blame. It's about winning—putting Bynum's past behind him and starting anew. It won't happen instantly, but the formula for Bynum's success isn't as exotic as you might think.
No More Bowling
OK, maybe a little bowling.
But from here on out, Bynum has to be as concerned with his messaging as he is with his game. He's walking into a young Cleveland locker room with no Kobe or Pau Gasol. That's not to say there's a complete leadership vacuum, at least not yet.
Mike Brown should feel more at home than he ever did in Los Angeles, and Kyrie Irving has already proven to be a man-child going into his third season. Adding Jarrett Jack to the mix should also help, so it's far too soon to worry about Bynum wrecking everything single-handedly.
Especially because that really hasn't been his M.O.
There's nothing all that destructive about the class-clown routine, but we'd be kidding ourselves if we didn't admit it's distracting. No one's saying Bynum has to become a vocal leader, but there's something to be said for setting those nonverbal tones. He has to show effort getting down the floor and show his coach some respect, to do the little things that keep everyone else equally invested.
It's one thing to win a trip to the All-Star Game, but a successful trip to the postseason is priority No. 1. Well-stuffed box scores won't be enough to guarantee that.
Picking-and-Rolling with Kyrie
Andrew Bynum will only go so far as Kyrie Irving takes him, but that doesn't make it Irving's responsibility alone.
Evolving together will be mutually beneficial and mutually demanding. Bynum never played with a point guard of Irving's caliber in Los Angeles. Though you could argue there are similarities between Kobe and Irving's scoring instincts (especially as closers), there are also important differences.
That isn't commentary on passing ability so much as playing style. Bynum now finds himself benefiting from a ball-handler who will look to set him up early and often.
On the one hand, he'll continue to get a lot of touches in the post, where his ability to make moves with his back to the basket is rare in today's league. Anderson Varejao's better-suited to charging hard to the rim, and that arguably makes him the more natural complement to Irving in pick-and-roll situations.
In time, though, you'd like to see Bynum develop more range, especially around the elbow where he could make himself a reasonably dangerous pick-and-pop threat. He's yet to spend much time there, in large part because Pau Gasol was the better high-post option in Los Angeles. At the moment, you can probably say the same for Varejao.
But an expanded repertoire isn't just about the merits of versatility. It's also about keeping Bynum fresh, sparing him some of the banging he'll otherwise incur on that low block possession after possession. Staying healthy requires a full-spectrum effort and improved range is certainly part of that spectrum.
Even when former Sixers President Rod Thorn conceded Bynum's injury struggles were "a little bizarre" last season, he still defended him, according to USA Today's Jason Wolf:
He's had problems. He's worked very hard. As you can see when you see him, he's huge. His upper body, he works in the weight room, he works hard, he just hasn't been able to play. It's been very tough for him and obviously it's been very tough for us.
Yet another setback would make things even tougher for Bynum, and this time the Cavaliers. The biggest danger is that his bad luck streak continues, undermining his resolve and the work ethic Thorn cited. Even the most hardened warriors get discouraged, and Bynum's career may well depend on that happening.
If you're a big believer in karma—or at least the law of averages—then Bynum's surely due some better luck.
Unfortunately, too many careers have been ruined to count on karma or averages either way. Even though not all of Bynum's injuries have been chronic (like the 2009 knee sprain caused in a collision with Bryant), there's little doubt he remains at greater risk for future injury than your average All-Star center—short a list as that may be.
ESPN's Brian Windhorst noted that it's precisely that risk factor that put Cleveland in position to sign Bynum so affordably, but it's also the single greatest threat to derail everything:
What is concerning is that Bynum has damage to cartilage in both knees and seemed to get worse after getting a usually effective blood-spinning procedure in Germany last summer. He missed an entire season even though his only major injury -- additional torn cartilage -- came from a night of bowling. This is most likely why after the meetings the only offer was from the Cavs.
Teams have to be realists when it comes to this sort of thing, but that doesn't mean Bynum has to be. His no-worries attitude could be the one thing keeping him afloat the next time things go south.
Staying out of the Way
Returning to All-Star form isn't necessarily synonymous with a return to All-Star production.
The rebounding will be nice, though not as essential as it was in Los Angeles with Anderson Varejao also cleaning the glass. Bynum averaged 11.8 rebounds in 2011-12, and Varejao wrangled in an unreal 14.4 per game last season, albeit over just a 25-game sample size.
There's a lot to like about the sheer combination of size and energy between the two, but one has to be at least slightly worried Cleveland's stockpile of size will get in the way of a good thing—namely the abilities of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters to get to the basket.
Outside of Earl Clark, the Cavs really don't have much in the way of a stretch-4—a description that only marginally fits Clark. When Bynum's in the game with Varejao or Tristan Thompson, there's little incentive for interior defenders to leave the paint, thus crowding lanes otherwise available to those perimeter slashers.
Working on his range and mobility could solve some of the literal spacing issues, but Bynum will also have to give Cleveland's scorers some metaphorical space. There were times with the Lakers in which the big man wanted a bigger role, but that role will almost certainly change alongside Cleveland's young stars. He probably won't see over 13 shots a game like he did in 2011-12, and he may never amount to more than a reliable third option.
Assuming that's OK with Bynum, we're all good. He just can't get too far ahead of himself.
Take It Slow
This may be a new chapter for Bynum, but it's not his last. More pressing than the question of whether he'll return to All-Star form is whether he'll still be there when the playoffs roll around. Getting the most out of him in May means getting far less in November and December.
Asked in August how Bynum will be brought along, The Plain Dealer's Mary Schmitt Boyer offered a pretty reasonable prediction:
I can't possibly tell you whether Bynum will be injured on Oct. 30, but I don't think it's realistic to expect he'll be ready to play 30 minutes a game, either. I think the Cavs will start him out very slowly and let his health and conditioning determine his minutes. I do think the added depth in the frontcourt, including Bynum if he's healthy, should lessen the minutes and pounding taken by Varejao, which, hopefully, will allow him to play a full season.
From most players' standpoints, it's tempting to push the envelope. That could be all the more true in Bynum's case.
There's nothing like missing an entire season to suggest damaged goods, and that's not the reputation Bynum wants—especially on just a two-year, mostly non-guaranteed contract. But it's not at all in Bynum's long-term interests to risk another lost season, even if that means losing some minutes and accolades.
And it's certainly not in Cleveland's. The best of All-Stars understand that—even if it costs them the All-Star Game.