Say goodbye to Andrew Bynum's superstar status because it's never coming back.
Want to really tick some people off? Then buy into the notion that he was never really a superstar anyway, more like a star in the making. That's what he was with the Los Angeles Lakers.
For our purposes, however, he was once a superstar. He has an All-Star appearance and a couple double-double seasons on his resume; that will have to do. He was a superstar.
Never again, though. Never again will he be a star, someone in which to build your team around. Never.
Doesn't mean his career is in shambles (though for the time being it is) or over, either. One day, maybe soon, he could become a dependable contributor for a playoff team. The Cleveland Cavaliers could even be that playoff team.
If and when that day finally comes, it won't be the same. Not like it should be. Not like it once was.
It's come to this. Excitement over Bynum practicing, but not really. That's what we celebrate now, for the always-injured center.
When Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico told us Bynum played five-on-five, it was a big deal. Huge.
This was incredible. Bynum was playing actual basketball, on the floor with other people and everything. Never mind that he wasn't cleared to participate in all of practice or play in actual games. Look at him on the floor. Playing basketball. Forget everything else.
Only we can't. I've lost count of how many setbacks Bynum has incurred over the last eight years or so, probably because no human being—save for John Nash of A Beautiful Mind—could count that high.
What I haven't lost sight of is the effects those setbacks, those initial injuries have had on his availability. That is, if you can even call it that.
Through eight seasons, Bynum has appeared in 392 regular-season games. Yes, we're counting last year. Those misinformed, potentially manipulated updates didn't take a holiday, so his career won't either.
For those mathematical geniuses out there, that's an average of 49 games a season. Forty-nine. A season. Of the 640 regular-season contests he's been in the NBA for, that's how many he's played in (392).
Essentially, he's been available half the time. More exactly, he's played 61.3 percent of the time. Righteous.
Menial updates have become breaking news because of this. Bynum gets out of bed and dresses himself this morning. Bynum dances the conga line at dinner and survives. Bynum had pulled chicken and a side of gravy fries for lunch. Fed himself and everything.
This is where we're at. It's almost Greg Oden-like at this point. The clouds parted when he dunked on his first possession with the Miami Heat and rightfully so. You can't not root for that guy. You also can't believe he's on the cusp of stardom. His knees won't allow it.
Moving forward, you can cheer for Bynum. Cut your hair just like his and stuff. Hope that he returns to form. But know that he won't. Like Oden, his degenerative knees have won for almost a decade, and there's nothing to suggest they'll cede control of his career now.
Who's the Boss?
Bynum couldn't have found himself in a better situation. Unless, of course, he was hoping to be The Man for the first time in his career. In that case, he would have been better off signing with a tanker.
Kyrie Irving is the Cavaliers. When Cleveland takes to free agency next summer, he'll be the team's sales pitch. Barring any trades, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett, among others, will be complementary cast members. Just like Bynum. Maybe.
Cleveland has a team option it can exercise on Bynum next summer. If the Cavs bring him back, it's because he played well. He won't be a 20 and 10 guy because he'll be the third option on offense upon return, but he'll be good enough. At which point, he'll spend another season in Cleveland, playing second fiddle (at best) to Irving. If the Cavaliers land another star by the name of LeBron James, he'll move even further down the food chain.
Assuming that, against all odds, he plays well again, he'll hit the open market pushing 28 in 2015. That's almost 30, the age NBA players (and Barney Stinson) dread. Think this, only worse:
What team will want to 1) pay him the money he was supposed to seek this summer and 2) build their team around him? Question No. 1 may have an answer; question No. 2 won't.
Established 30-somethings are players you can sell a rebuild around. Injury-prone bigs who have never anchored a team on their own and are approaching 30 aren't.
There's always the possibility that the Cavaliers decline his option, too. Doing that would suggest he's not worth the $12.5 million they would be obligated to pay him.
In this scenario, Bynum is pushing 27 and worse off than he was over the offseason, when the bids for his services were ticket-sales-from-Gigli underwhelming. More likely than not, he would sign another non-guaranteed deal worth even less, for a team expecting even less.
If you don't think Bynum underperforming is a distinct possibility, you must've battened down the hatches these last 15 months. Failure is an option; Bynum not even playing is an option. It's happened before, and it could happen again.
The optimist in me says it won't. Consider this my bolder than bold prediction for 2013-14: Bynum is going to play in an actual game. Boom. Let that marinate a little bit; I know it's a lot to take in.
My main concern is that actually playing won't automatically amount to success. And in Cleveland, it will never amount to stardom.
It took him a full seven seasons to average more than 15 points a night, make an All-Star appearance and convince a team like the Philadelphia 76ers he was worth gambling their future on. He's not going to just pick up where he left off or emerge as the player he was supposed to be in Philly.
Cleveland is a different situation and Bynum a different player. No matter how well he performs, he won't have enough time or adequate opportunity to broach his previous ceiling. Not in Cleveland. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Star Big Men Don't Grow On Trees
The NBA has gone small.
Consult the All-Star ballots for reference. Center selections are obsolete. While that doesn't mean superstar centers are history—though the league may be headed that way—it increases the competition and tightens the standard to which star towers are held to.
It's tough to imagine Bynum getting there, if only because he was never truly there. He played more than 30 minutes per game twice through his first eight (fine, seven) seasons. Howard, meanwhile, did so eight times during the same span. And hell, last year, when he was Superman's version of crippled, he still played 35.8 minutes a night.
Match that, 'Drew. Not even the output, just the playing time. Match it.
You can't, though, can you? No shame in that. Few players can. Only nine of the Association's centers cleared 30 minutes last year. Nine. Playing fewer than 30 minutes has become routine for many of those guys. Roy Hibbert was selected to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, and he logged just 28.7 minutes a game.
By and large, this would seem like good news for Bynum. Centers who play less are able to distinguish themselves. Awesome.
The difference is, those players are healthy. They're not coming off multiple knee procedures and a season-long absence. The ones that are, they're on a minutes cap, like Oden or even Amar'e Stoudemire.
Big men with knee issues don't play enough to be stars. There's too much risk involved. And if Bynum's an exception, he's an exception in the other direction. His knees are worse off than most, and his inevitable minutes cap will be a reflection of his status—that of a fragile contributor, not superstar.
Hold The Hate Mail
Nothing about Bynum inspires the raging lunatic in me; I've got nothing against him. I would never hope an NBA player fails, save for maybe Ricky Davis back in the day (what a tool).
But neither I nor you are here to be thoughtless sycophants, who blindly believe that Bynum is capable of reclaiming his spot as a superstar. It was a tepid spot to begin with, barely warm. No one's kept the flickering fire burning for him in his absence, either.
Other centers have gotten better, more reliable. Younger centers are on the rise. There was a time when Bynum was one of them—youthful, exuberant and brimming with promise. It seems like forever ago because it was.
Bynum is who he is at this point. He could only ride the coattails of his potential for so long, and we could only look past his bleak bill of health for so long as well.
Playing in Cleveland gives him a fresh start, a blank slate. I hope he's able to make the most of it; I really do.
But he won't find success and his supporters won't find refuge in begging him to chase the ghost of his former self. Because that Bynum is gone, and he's never coming back.