MIAMI — On the surface, this would seem to fit as snugly as Andrew Bynum's fingers in a customized bowling ball, or a knee brace on one of his battered knees.
Here's a player of immense talent and—in the not-so-distant past—proven results, a player who may soon be available for a relative pittance.
And here's an executive, Pat Riley, always trying to reinforce his roster with skilled size, as evidenced by his recent fliers on reclamation projects Eddy Curry, Chris Andersen and Greg Oden.
So, naturally, the rumors started simultaneously with the Dec. 28 news that the Cleveland Cavaliers had chosen to suspend Bynum indefinitely for conduct detrimental to their struggling team. Bynum is likely to be cut loose by Cleveland—or by whatever team acquires his unconventional contract in a luxury tax-related trade—before Jan. 7 so it can avoid paying him the second half of his $12.25 million this season.
Then he would become a free agent, likely obtainable for the prorated veteran's minimum. Miami, unsurprisingly, is one of his preferred destinations, according to Bill Simmons of ESPN. The Heat could conceivably clear roster space by waiving Roger Mason Jr., who has fit well but whose contract is not yet guaranteed, or by tossing in a draft pick to get some time to take on Joel Anthony's $3.8 million playoff option for next season.
On the surface, such a scenario is, well, a challenge to challenge, since it fits the same low-risk model that has paid off well for Miami many times in the recent past, with the likes of Andersen (off-court issues and knee trouble), Rashard Lewis (knee trouble) and Michael Beasley (general maturity concerns) all giving the Heat rotation-worthy work for minimum money.
Why, when you're ahead of only the Los Angeles Lakers in rebound percentage (47.4), wouldn't you add someone who, even in a diminished state, averages 9.5 rebounds per 36 minutes—a number that would rank first on the Heat?
Well, that might be what Riley ultimately asks himself.
If so, he should ask around his locker room.
Bynum doesn't belong there.
Not this Bynum, who, at 26, seems beaten down in body and spirit, beaten down by the game, after it was never really his life from the beginning.
No, no Heat player said anything specifically about Bynum that this week, at least not on the record. Nor was that the intent of my inquiries, since I recognized that Heat players would say little directly about a player still under contract to another team, especially when that player's addition would affect some of their current teammates—from those who might lose minutes (such as Andersen) to those who might be relocated (such as Mason or Anthony) to those who are working so hard to rehabilitate (such as Oden).
But in light of widespread reports about Bynum's increasing displays of indifference (including this one from Yahoo!), it did seem appropriate to pose more general questions related to that particular subject: love of the game, how much it matters and how much it matters here, on this team, at this time.
This Heat roster melds a diverse set of personalities, all of whom seem to share one thing: love of the game. That, in part, is why the Andersen experiment worked, the Beasley experiment is working and the Oden experiment may work. Beasley, for all of his missteps, has admitted he needs basketball and is happiest when he's on the floor; Andersen wants to play several more seasons; Oden refuses to give up even though his body's given him every right.
Have these Heat players played, over the course of their careers, with guys who didn't appear as if they loved the game?
"Yeah, plenty," Ray Allen said.
Allen has identified them easily.
"The guys who don't come on the floor and work on their games," he said. "And may be ultra-talented, but they just do what they have to do, and then they leave. You know, the guys who love it always find a way to get better and to be on the floor and to compete and to play shooting games, and play free-throw games, those are the guys who love the game."
We see those shooting games after every Heat practice. They go on forever. Like no one wants to leave.
"But the ones who don't love it, they spend the time that they have to spend," Allen said. "And then they leave."
Allen said that love makes all the difference, in owning one's skills, in continuing to progress.
"That's why I say I never gauge a person by talent coming out of college," Allen said. "I gauge what kind of heart they have. Once you get here, you find a way to get better, regardless of what team you play on, or what situation you're thrust into."
Shane Battier said he's played with "numerous" players "who played basketball because they were athletic and they could make a lot of money. But given a choice, if there was no NBA, would those people be playing basketball in a gym somewhere? No. Multiple. Numerous."
Battier estimated the number at around 30 percent of the NBA.
"Yeah, it happens," Chris Bosh said. "I think the NBA weeds those guys out. I mean, some dudes do it because they love it, but then the competition gets a lot higher and it gets more demanding, and you see if you really love the game. There's nothing wrong with that. If you're not invested totally into it mentally and emotionally, you're not going to be the best player you can be."
Or as good as the world wants you to be.
"It's a dream job for everybody," Bosh said of observers. "And if you're a freak of nature and you're bigger and stronger and faster than everybody else, naturally, people put you in a box and expect you to do a certain particular thing, but if you play and it's just not there, then you can't ever force it."
Not for teammates, either.
"I always say I would rather have a guy that has 1000 percent volume and teach them to turn it down," Allen said. "As opposed to someone with no volume, and you've got to get them to turn it up."
Can the love develop at some later point?
"No," Battier said. "Not to say you can't be successful if you don't love the game. You can love the lifestyle, so you put the work in. But in terms of true love and just having the passion for it, no. No. You either have it or you don't."
If you don't, would it be a struggle to play for these Heat?
Would it be a struggle to play for a team that requires so much sacrifice—in minutes, money, shots and glory, not to mention playing style?
"Oh yeah, it's so demanding," Bosh said. "We play a lot of basketball. The style we play, you're going to be tired. You're going to have days where you don't feel like doing your job, you're going to be sore. You're just going to be mentally beat. It just goes like this throughout the whole season, and if you don't have that love to fall back on, it's just going to be extremely difficult."
Or, as Battier put it, "They could exist, but I don't think it would be enjoyable for them. Because I think we do have a lot of guys who really love basketball. And even if there was no NBA, everyone on this team would be playing pickup ball somewhere. That's what you have to look at. That's the love of the game."
That's the price for admission here, on this rare NBA roster.
That's why, when it comes to Andrew Bynum, at this stage of his life, no price is right.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.
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