Early Andrew Bynum Return Resets Expectations for Center and Cleveland Cavaliers

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Early Andrew Bynum Return Resets Expectations for Center and Cleveland Cavaliers
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Philadelphia 76ers fans, avert your eyes. Although I suppose you're probably all too busy celebrating the out-of-nowhere win over the Miami Heat to notice Andrew Bynum actually playing basketball. 

After sitting out during his entire stint with the Sixers, the big man has returned. I can only assume that he spent the entire offseason watching Arnold Schwarzenegger say "I'll be back" to get himself psyched up for his Cleveland Cavaliers debut. 

In the 98-94 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, Bynum stepped onto the court for regular-season action for the first time since his final game with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2012 postseason. It's been that long. 

Bynum taking part in the opening game of the season was a bit of a surprise, since his return date had yet to be confirmed. It wasn't shocking, but it also wasn't expected. 

And now that he's back, it's time to redefine the expectations for the Cavaliers. 

 

The Return

It's rare to get so hyped up about eight minutes without being on a roller coaster, watching an intense movie scene or doing something else that typically only lasts for such a short duration. In the NBA, we tend to get excited about roughly 30 minutes of action.

But Bynum defies the norm. 

That's what happens after missing a complete 82-game season. Was Bynum ever a true member of the 76ers? Does a tree make noise if it falls in the woods? 

The big man played eight minutes in the season-opening victory over the Nets, but he also redefined the expectations for the entire season by doing so. No longer do we have to wonder if he'll ever play basketball again, but instead, we can start watching as he eases his way back into a more prominent role. 

In that brief spurt of action, Bynum shot 1-of-5 from the field, with his lone bucket coming on the tip in which you can see below. He also corralled three rebounds, dished out two assists and rejected two shots. 

He was on the court for the closing minutes of the first quarter and the opening salvo of the second. During that time, the Nets shot only 4-of-14 from the field and turned the ball over three times. But even more telling is where the shots came from. 

Photo credit to NBA.com/stats

The Nets were hesitant to attack the basket while Bynum was patrolling the paint, and that bodes well for the rest of the season. As Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney wrote, "Even without operating at full speed, Bynum still ate up space on the interior and challenged shots effectively—both on the hopeless attempts of Reggie Evans and the more viable tries of Lopez."

Once Bynum is even more comfortable with A) his body, B) what Mike Brown is asking him to do and C) what his teammates are doing, he's going to be the stellar rim-protector that he was for the Lakers. 

Don't make the mistake of looking at Bynum's line, seeing three points on 1-of-5 shooting and turn up your noise. That would be selling short the amount of impact that he made for the Cavs.

After the game was over, Dion Waiters spoke to the Associated Press via ESPN about Bynum, saying, "It's a big body out there blocking shots. He changed the game. He changed the momentum."

That momentum would't be stopped anytime soon.

 

More Depth in the Frontcourt

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

It's no secret that the Cavaliers are a rather injury-prone bunch. 

Between Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Bynum, the Cavs can typically find enough DNPs to fill up an entire season. Hell, Bynum did that by himself last year. 

Irving isn't particularly important here, though, as he isn't a part of the frontcourt. The burden rests on Bynum, Varejao, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett to remain both healthy and effective, and every warm body is beneficial. It's in Cleveland's best interest to play those aforementioned guys over Tyler Zeller and Henry Sims whenever possible, and that can only happen when they're capable of suiting up. 

Bynum's return to health—and the lineup—does more than just allow him to play. It gives Mike Brown the ability to rest Varejao for longer stretches of time, keeping him healthy for important games and the inevitable stretch run that's needed in order to make the postseason and advance past the first round. 

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Now that Thompson is a bona fide starter with top-tier upside, lineups that use both Bynum and Varejao should almost never be thrown out onto the court. Thompson dominated the Nets' front line with an efficient 18 points and nine rebounds, and that's no fluke. He's going to put up numbers like that all year long after switching his shooting hand in the offseason.

The emergence of the Texas product and the return of Bynum give the Cavaliers so many more options to work with, and that means that no one player has to spend more time on the court than he's capable of spending.

When discussing the merits of Bynum's impact, this is a simple reason. Sure. But don't let the simplicity take away from the importance. 

 

Elite Upside

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

“We’re a different team when he’s out there."

That's what Mike Brown, referring to Bynum, told the media after his team began the season with a surprising 98-94 win over Brooklyn, according to Sean Deveney of the Sporting News.

With a healthy Bynum, the Cavaliers actually have a chance to become more of a defensive team. I've discussed Irving's improvements on the less glamorous end of the court in detail here, but the center can make an even bigger impact. 

Basketball-Reference shows that the Cavs were one of the absolute worst point-stopping squads in 2012-13. They allowed 109.4 points per 100 possessions, a mark that left them beating only the New Orleans Hornets, Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats. Although the Hornets Pelicans are now playoff contenders in the Western Conference, that's not typically a group of teams you want to be associated with. 

Now, let's take a look at Bynum's defensive impact over the course of his career: 

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

Each and every year that he's spent in the NBA, Bynum has had a positive defensive impact. And you could already see signs of that during his opening performance with the Cavs

While he was noticeably weak posting up the Brooklyn big men, he was still contesting shots through his sheer size, and he understood where to position himself on the court. Once he's more active and isn't content to stand around on the weak side, he'll be even more of an impact player. 

So, what does this mean for Cleveland? 

It's no secret that the Cavs have the makings of a potent offensive team.

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

They were a middling team last year, in terms of scoring, but the combined improvements of Irving, Dion Waiters and Thompson are only going to help, as are the additions of Jarrett Jack and Anthony Bennett. 

With one game in the books, the team is scoring 104.5 points per 100 possessions per Basketball-Reference, which leaves them at No. 12 in the league. That's already a better mark than last year (small sample size warnings abound), and it's only going to get better. After all, Kyrie won't shoot just 4-of-16 from the field every night, and the team can reasonably be expected to top 41.7 percent. 

Going into the season, no one had any idea what to expect from Bynum. There seemed to be an underlying expectation that he would eventually play, but a return date was completely unknown, which allowed his debut to function as a bit of a shocker.

And even still, Cleveland was considered a playoff team.

The Cavaliers were part of the mix that included the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors, all of whom were competing for the final two postseason berths in the Eastern Conference. 

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Bynum is in the mix from the get-go, the Cavaliers are a different team.

With a healthy Bynum, where will the Cavs finish in the Eastern Conference?

Submit Vote vote to see results

They have more frontcourt depth, thus alleviating one of the huge concerns that shadowed them throughout the preseason. And, perhaps even more importantly, they have the ability to be a two-way team rather than an offensive powerhouse that hopes to avoid hemorrhaging too many points on a nightly basis. 

If Bynum is a part of the rotation—even if he only plays 15 to 20 minutes per game throughout the regular season—the Cavaliers join the New York Knicks as non-elite teams in the East who can go ahead and pencil their names into the playoff picture. If he regains his Los Angeles Lakers form, the Cavaliers could even become true contenders and push past the two New York-based teams in the final standings. 

But remember, even though Bynum has debuted and played basketball in an actual game for the first time in a full season, those are still big "ifs." In fact, they may be standing just over seven feet tall.

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