Why Andrew Bynum Is the Biggest X-Factor in the NBA Entering 2013-14

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Why Andrew Bynum Is the Biggest X-Factor in the NBA Entering 2013-14

The Cleveland CavaliersAndrew Bynum has a city on his back and the NBA in his palm.

It's a tremendous burden for any player to carry, let alone one already logging around 290 pounds on a pair of balky knees.

But that's the hand that's been dealt to the league's biggest boom-or-bust player.

At his best, Bynum's a human wrecking ball on the low block. Still just 25 years old with time and room to raise his ceiling, he's a two-way force capable of anchoring a defense and leading an offense.

But at his worst, he's an injury-riddled mess of bad haircuts and worse bowling skills. Oh, and he has the worst two knees the league has seen this side of Greg Oden.

Bynum's potential for the 2013-14 season runs the gamut from franchise savior to the next in a long line of Cleveland sports disasters. But his league-wide influence spreads farther than the city limits and longer than this one-year lens.

 

Postseason Dreaming

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You might think given the Cavs' lottery-day luck—four top-four picks over the last three drafts—that the franchise would welcome another lost season in the face of a loaded 2014 rookie class.

But owner Dan Gilbert quickly dismissed that idea, saying at the 2013 draft, via the Associated Press, that the Cavs hoped this would be their "last lottery."

At some point those lottery winnings need to shift over to the standings. Cleveland holds just a 64-166 mark since LeBron James' infamous departure in 2010.

Between past lottery picks Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, along with 2013 top pick Anthony Bennett, the Cavs have the pieces to compete for a second-tier playoff spot in the top-heavy Eastern Conference.

But that competition will be stiff without the right man in the middle. And that's where Bynum comes into play.

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The last time he was seen on the NBA stage, as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011-12, Bynum teetered on the cusp of superstardom. He set career marks in scoring (18.7), rebounding (11.8) and player efficiency rating (22.9) while punching the first All-Star ticket of his seven-year career.

He brings question marks into 2013-14 (more on those in a minute), but that's not unique to just him in this frontcourt.

Anderson Varejao lost all but 25 games last season due to a life-threatening blood clot in his right lung and has played just 81 games over the last three seasons combined. Bennett had offseason surgery on his left shoulder and has yet to face any NBA competition. Thompson is an undersized 5 (6'9", 227 lbs). And Tyler Zeller is, well, Tyler Zeller (11.0 PER in his rookie season).

Cleveland's backcourt—assuming Irving and Waiters continue to develop—might be good enough  to keep this team in the playoff race without a healthy Bynum. But this team's ceiling grows exponentially if the big man can log significant minutes. Expectations rise from a postseason appearance to series wins.

A consistent scoring touch in the post gives Irving even more room to amaze with his explosive dribble moves. A roadblock near the basket stops the steady stream of penetration threatening to undermine Mike Brown's defensive schemes.

Bynum is talented enough to thrust the Cavs into the championship chase. But he has to be healthy to do that—something he hasn't been for more than a year.

 

Degenerative Damage

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Bynum played all 82 games in his sophomore season (2006-07) and missed only six games during his masterful run through the 2011-12 campaign.

Outside of those two years, though, he's been collecting DNPs like Jae Crowder hair clippings.

His 2007-08 campaign was cut short by a dislocated kneecap that cost him the final 46 games of the season. He missed 32 games the following year with an MCL tear in his right knee. He had arthroscopic knee surgery over the summer of 2010 and missed the first 24 games of 2010-11.

After his breakout effort in 2011-12, last season was an unmitigated disaster.

In an attempt to safeguard his ascent, Bynum followed Kobe Bryant's lead and traveled to Germany for Orthokine therapy. He said it was a preventative, not reactionary, procedure. "Nothing feels wrong," he told ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "It's supposed to regenerate tissue and stuff like that, so I want to check that out."

But he suffered a bone bruise in Sept. 2012, then aggravated the ailment during a bowling trip gone awry. Different dates for his Philadelphia 76ers debut came and went without any on-court activity.

When he finally shelved any hopes of playing by undergoing season-ending arthroscopic surgery on his knees in March, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Bynum's injury problems were "degenerative" and "his career could be in jeopardy."

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Bynum joined the Cleveland Cavaliers over the summer but had to settle for a two-year, $24 million deal with only $6 million in guaranteed money.

His Cleveland career has already gotten off to an ominous start.

While the big man resumed limited basketball activities in September, he still lacks a return date for even full-court practices. Cavs general manager Chris Grant told the Associated Press at Media Day (h/t ESPN) that the team doesn't know when he'll be ready for action:

Andrew is going to be on the court soon, but we're not going to set a specific date when he might be ready to play. Everything is good, though, and he hasn't had any setbacks...If that means he's back in two weeks, great. If that means he's back in a month and a half, great. We're just not putting any hard timetable out there.

Despite Bynum's guarantee that he'll "definitely" play this season, via Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, his availability remains a mystery.

And it's that intrigue that could be shaping the future of this franchise and the NBA as a whole.

 

Sending a Message...and a Recruiting Pitch

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Cavs aren't the kind of team that can afford to live and die with its free-agent hauls. Even when LeBron James was on board, they had to use the trade market just to find complementary pieces (Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison) and past-their-prime players (Shaquille O'Neal).

Cleveland can't trade for the players other teams want and can't get equal value for the ones it deems expendable. The Cavaliers are forced to hope that their free-agent fortune changes—and that's without a major market or warm weather to sell to potential targets.

Cleveland only has the prospect of winning to attract talent, something it first needs to convince to Irving. The All-Star floor general has two years left on his rookie contract and hasn't started thinking about signing an extension, per Sam Amico of Fox Sports' Amico Report blog.

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The Cavs need Bynum to not only increase their win totals, but also to prove to Irving that they are capable of putting difference-makers around him—the same kind of players Cleveland never found for the business-savvy, championship-hungry James during his seven seasons there.

If Bynum keeps Irving happy, then Cleveland may find itself in the most desirable situation in the league. With a little financial maneuvering, the Cavs could have the cap space to keep Bynum, extend Irving and throw max money at a qualified candidate from the 2014 class.

And no candidate is more qualified than Cleveland's prodigal son, James. If the franchise sees a best-case scenario in 2013-14—Bynum healthy and playing at an All-Star level, Irving cementing his position as a top-flight point guard—it will have quite the compelling case to sell to James.

That's why the NBA's eyes will be glued on Cleveland's man in the middle, the player capable of dramatically shifting the basketball landscape next summer. 

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