It was May 21, 2012.
Andrew Bynum's Los Angeles Lakers, less than 24 months removed from the franchise's 16th NBA title, suffered an unceremonious ending to their postseason run. The upstart Oklahoma City Thunder disposed of the mighty Lakers in just five games of the Western Conference Semifinals.
Bynum struggled throughout his 34-plus-minute run, scoring 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting and finishing with only four rebounds.
It was a rather forgettable ending to an unforgettable year. After spending six seasons in the L.A. shadows, Bynum forced his 285-pound frame to center stage. He set personal bests in scoring (18.7), rebounding (11.8) and player efficiency rating (22.9). For the first time in his career he was an NBA All-Star and an All-NBA selection (second team).
Had he merely stumbled after the fact, that could have been forgiven. He wouldn't have been the first, nor the last, to crumble under the bright lights of stardom. But he's been on a free fall from that day, plummeting from rising star to the butt of all basketball jokes.
For a city that's had to endure so much sports suffering, is Bynum simply the next in a long line of disappointments? Or could he be the surprise savior for a franchise, a community, in desperate need of one?
Unlike the Philadelphia 76ers, who unloaded former face of the franchise Andre Iguodala and several high-potential prospects to acquire Bynum last summer, the Cavaliers had a decent idea of what they were getting in Bynum.
Which is to say that they recognized there was no way of knowing how effective, or active, he could be.
Cleveland did everything it could to safeguard this investment. Bynum, a surefire maximum contract candidate just one year ago, signed an incentive-laden two-year deal with the Cavs that could be worth anywhere from $6 million to $24 million.
Analysts lauded the franchise's foresight in what many considered a low-risk, high-reward maneuver.
On the surface, it's hard to argue with that stance.
Players with Bynum's size and skill combination can demand salaries exponentially greater than what the Cavaliers are paying him. Dwight Howard—on the heels of his injury-plagued, at times disastrous, debut with the Lakers in 2012-13—secured a four-year, $88 million contract with the Houston Rockets just weeks before Bynum signed his deal.
But there's more to this transaction than just the economics.
While Cleveland can control the level of its financial commitment, it can't curb the excitement surrounding the signing. Even through a cautious lens, fans can't avoid hoping for a return of Bynum's dominance.
If Bynum can get back to anywhere near full strength, the Cavs can vault from postseason hopefuls to championship contenders. With a rising star in Kyrie Irving and several others pining to follow his lead (Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett), Cleveland could be sitting on the cusp of greatness.
But it all falls on Bynum's shoulders, or knees rather (more on that in a minute). And that's one thing that this front office can't control.
No sports fans welcome the sting of disappointment. But if there's any market prepared to feel its pain, it's Cleveland.
Despite having teams in each of the three major sports, Cleveland hasn't celebrated a championship in any of them since the Browns won the NFL Championship—not Super Bowl, that didn't exist back then—in 1964.
The Indians haven't won the World Series since 1948. They came close twice in the 1990s but suffered a crushing seven-game defeat to the Florida Marlins in 1997 and a tough six-game loss to the Atlanta Braves in 1995.
The Cavaliers have never won an NBA title. LeBron James led them to the franchise's first NBA Finals berth in 2007, but the battle-tasted San Antonio Spurs dispatched the youthful Cavs with a four-game sweep.
As if the lack of team success wasn't bad enough, even individual triumphs have been hard to come by. Or, at least, hard to sustain.
The Cavs lost the best player on the planet, James, in 2010 and learned about his exit in a poorly executed, particularly cruel hour-long ESPN special dubbed "The Decision." In 2004, Cleveland lost Carlos Boozer, who signed a six-year, $68 million contract with the Utah Jazz after the Cavs had relinquished his rights with the understanding that he would stay in Cleveland for the full mid-level exception.
After their World Series defeats, the Indians saw several key cogs depart in free agency. Manny Ramirez signed with the Boston Red Sox in 2000, Jim Thome joined the Philadelphia Phillies two years later and Omar Vizquel inked a deal with the San Francisco Giants in 2004.
In an attempt to avoid more free-agency losses, the Indians traded former Cy Young winner CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008. Cliff Lee, another former Cy Young winner, was dealt to the Phillies the following summer.
In 1996, the late Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore. Although the franchise was officially treated as an expansion team—new team name, colors—Cleveland's players moved with Modell. The Ravens have already enjoyed a pair of Super Bowl triumphs (2000 and 2012). The Browns, which started back up in 1999, have had one playoff appearance (and zero postseason wins) since Modell's move.
History of Injuries
While Cleveland's sports history is tragic, Bynum's medical past is terrifying.
He played all 82 games in his sophomore season of 2006-07 and has yet to appear in more than 65 since—although he did play 60 of a possible 66 games in the strike-shortened 2011-12 season.
He suffered a bone bruise and dislocated his left kneecap in Jan. 2008. Although he was initially slated to miss eight weeks, he was out of action for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. In November of that same year, Bynum had a bone spur in his right foot. This time around he was fortunate enough to avoid any DNPs.
But Bynum was back on the shelf just a few months later as an MRI revealed a torn MCL in his right knee in Jan. 2009. He returned to the floor in the middle of April but hardly looked like the same player. After averaging 14.3 points and 8.0 rebounds in the regular season, he managed just 6.3 and 3.7 in the postseason.
He missed 17 games in 2009-10, then had surgery on his right knee the following summer. His 2010-11 debut was delayed until Dec. 14 as he was still recovering from the procedure.
After a nearly picture perfect 2011-12 campaign, Bynum's 2012-13 season was outside the realm of even the most cynical worst-case scenarios.
He never suited up for the Philadelphia 76ers. With nagging injuries in both knees, Bynum decided in March to undergo season-ending arthroscopic surgery.
But the news reports were even worse. According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Bynum's knee problems were degenerative. His career was in jeopardy.
Bynum's agent, David Lee, has been doing damage control ever since. He tried to hide the red flags risen from the fact that his client would not be working out for any free-agent suitors. He told the Associated Press that there's "not a concern in the world" that his client wouldn't be ready for the start of training camp.
Now training camp and the preseason both seem like long shots. It feels like only a matter of time before actual games are missed.
Still, the Cavaliers did the right thing by signing Bynum. Even if he'll be a question mark throughout the season.
Culture of Winning
The Cavaliers have been on an incredible hot streak of late.
The only problem is that their luck has started, and stopped, at the draft lottery.
They've beaten the lottery odds in two of the last three seasons, first with 2011's jackpot that brought All-Star Kyrie Irving into the fold and again this summer in the form of No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett.
With fellow top-five picks Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson already on the roster, Cleveland expects to be a playoff team in 2014. Veteran Jarrett Jack, brought in on a four-year, $25.2 million deal, is hoping to help fuel the same turnaround in Cleveland that he did with the Golden State Warriors last season.
The excitement level is high right now, but the promise of greatness lies just on the horizon if the Cavs play their cards right.
Irving seems headed for superstardom, but he's also on the brink of a major payday. Cleveland has from now through the start of the 2014-15 season to convince him to sign a long-term contract extension with the team. If the two sides can't reach an agreement, the 21-year-old would become a restricted free agent in 2015.
CBS Sports' Brandon Tierney has already started stirring the pot, reporting back in July that a source told him Irving may not be happy in Cleveland.
For as much promise as this franchise appears to hold, its actual on-court performance is in serious need of improvement. The Cavs are 45-103 since Irving's arrival, a worrying figure considering today's branded superstars seem to need at least winning or a large market to stay satisfied.
Bynum might not make the Cavaliers winners, but at least he's the type of player that shows Irving the organization's commitment to winning. Regardless how high the level of concern might be, the potential for Cleveland with a healthy Bynum is even greater.
If everything (finally) goes right for this city, who knows what could be on the horizon? A grossly overdue return to the championship stage? LeBron James' return in 2014?
Anything's possible when it comes to the round-ball mystery man known as Andrew Bynum.
That intrigue, above everything else, makes this a savvy acquisition for this franchise. And for this city.
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