This needs to work.
Bynum's arrival wasn't an afterthought. Instead, it was met with polite satisfaction. Cleveland assumed almost zero risk. If Bynum didn't pan out, they could part ways with him this summer, armed with a bellyful of cap space. No harm; no foul.
If he did work out, the Cavs were given instant life. The opportunity to snag a playoff spot in a subjacent Eastern Conference. The option to retain Bynum on a reasonable 2014-15 salary that wouldn't compromise their ability to woo prospective free agents, specifically LeBron James.
All has not gone according to plan. Bynum hasn't been incapable, but he has been inconsistent. Irving hasn't been horrible, but individual expectations have soared beyond his reach. Signing LeBron isn't out of the realm of possibility, but it's become increasingly unlikely with each passing loss.
Where the future once promised options and reassurance, it's now become an indistinct vision, blurred by chains of questions suddenly lacking palpable answers.
In Need of a No. 2
One perk of signing Bynum was the Cavs didn't need him to be the 2011-12 version of Bynum.
Cleveland wasn't the Philadelphia 76ers; it didn't relinquish its best player in exchange for Bynum. The Cavs had Irving, the sophomore sensation of 2012-13, who joined LeBron as only the second player in the last 15 years to secure an All-Star selection in just his second season of action.
They had a superstar. And they also had a No. 2 in Dion Waiters. Or a healthy Anderson Varejao. Tristan Thompson was even expected to do some things.
Replete with a combination of flowering talent and proven performers, Bynum was the golden parachute; he was extra depth. Gravy.
Still working his way back from an injury-plagued 2012-13, Bynum wasn't No. 2 or No. 3. Other players were in place to complement Irving in that capacity. Varejao, Waiters, Thompson—all of them could find themselves ahead of Bynum in the food chain.
Then the season began, bringing with it a smog of disappointment.
Inconsistency continues to rain down on the Cavs, who have, at times, found themselves battling dysfunction and inertia. Things got so bad, ESPN's Brian Windhorst discovered that the Cavs held a contentious players-only meeting 10 games in to the season, where grievances were aired and resentment voiced.
Soon after, ESPN's Chris Broussard dropped an early season bomb: Cleveland was shopping Waiters.
Sources: Cavs shopping Dion Waiters. They've spoken w/Chi, NYK & Philly. No deal imminent. Waiters is open to being traded.— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) November 27, 2013
Barely one year after drafting him with the fourth-overall pick, it seemed the Cavs had given up. That they were rattled by his subpar-shooting percentages and inability to thrive alongside Irving.
Waiters has responded with three straight 20-plus point games, restoring some of the faith he squandered through the first 14 games of the season. But he isn't off the hook.
Irving is the only Cav averaging more than 15 points per game and one of just three players in double figures. Among them is Waiters, who is poring in 14.7 points per contest.
Is that enough? For a No. 2, no. Varejao and Thompson, who are combining for under 20 points a night, haven't been enough, either.
The Cavs, a team that supposedly had a deputy scorer, is still in need of a No. 2. Nondescript starts by a slew of others should have them looking at Bynum, a former All-Star who, when on, is the only one capable of providing Irving and the Cavs with what they seek.
Really think about what Cleveland will do next. If you figure out what it's planning, tell me, because I'd love to know.
Chasing LeBron is the easy answer. He can become an unrestricted free agent after this season, and the Cavs have under $36.2 million in guaranteed commitments for 2014-15, paving the way for a reunion of sorts.
But that homecoming isn't the most sensible option. Not for LeBron, who, title or no title this season, is on the verge of forging a dynasty with the Miami Heat. And not for the Cavaliers, who have ostensibly been positioning themselves for this summer, for this opportunity.
Poaching LeBron would solve (almost) everything. Once-in-a-generation talents like himself tend to do that. But that's only if he becomes a free agent and agrees to a return.
All this sentimental mumbo-jumbo doesn't guarantee anything. Cleveland is special to LeBron; we know that. We also know that the head coach is once again Mike Brown. That Dan Gilbert, who painted LeBron a narcissist in 2010, is still the owner. That the franchise is still haunting the bottom of league standings.
For every argument in favor of LeBron returning, there is another, equally powerful diatribe to counter it. Counting on LeBron, then, to return as a cure-all, carries the Cavs only so far, all the while setting them up for disappointment.
That's fine, though. There's always Irving. Remember him? The superstar? Building around him is a foolproof plan. But with who?
Aside from Irving, the Cavs haven't struck gold in the draft. Favorable selections haven't brought them a second star. The verdict is still out on Waiters, Thompson and even Anthony Bennett, but they're not Irving. Nor is there anyone else on the roster with that kind of potential—except Bynum.
Injuries and a questionable work ethic have threatened to destroy his ceiling, but traces of the superstar from Los Angeles are still there. Against the Chicago Bulls, Bynum logged a season-high 30 minutes en route to going for 20 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and three assists.
Still persevering through an identity crisis three-plus years after LeBron's departure, star-caliber performances are what the Cavs need Bynum to bring to their table.
Understanding the Unknown
Questions are arising by the day in Cleveland.
The Cavs ended a five-game skid with a win over the Bulls, but it was the Rose-less, Jimmy Butler-less Bulls. They're primed to make a run at LeBron this summer, but King James may not be available for the taking or averse to rewriting the past.
Perusing other free-agency ranks is always an option, but outside of Irving, the Cavs lack that one selling point. Stars flock to bigger markets, to flashier rosters—just like LeBron did. Without him, Irving may not be enough to convince other luminaries to join him in Cleveland. And without LeBron, without a second star, the Cavs won't have enough to sell Irving on their future together.
By that point, the Cavs must look to the draft. To Waiters. To Bennett. To Thompson. All of who haven't been enough thus far.
And so, that leaves Bynum, who when healthy and engaged can be that second star. The star Cleveland needs. Not just now, but in order to sell Irving, their LeBron replacement, later on as well.
Successfully coexisting with Irving gives the Cavs a plan that extends beyond external maybes (LeBron, the draft, etc.) and in-house mysteries (Waiters, Bennett, Thompson). It gives them a brighter a future and provides them with an exit strategy from the life their leading now, near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
"This is who he is,'' Brown said of Bynum, via Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer. "Even if he doesn't get his bounce back, he's so skilled and he's so big and so strong, if he just stays with it once he gets his timing back but, more importantly once we figure out how to play with him, I think good things can happen."
Good things need to happen, not merely to salvage this season but to establish a future. To give the Cavs an identity. To ensure that their biggest problem becomes an inevitable courtship of LeBron, of a third piece to their puzzle and not the fear of history repeating itself with Irving.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and are accurate as of Dec. 1, 2013.