The Los Angeles Lakers waited six injury-plagued seasons before Bynum's output caught up to his potential. The Philadelphia 76ers waited through 82 Bynum-less games. The Cleveland Cavaliers were clearly in no mood to wait.
And after 24 games in Cleveland, Bynum has reportedly been in no mood to play.
It’s hard not to think of Bynum as damaged goods in at least one sense. No matter who signs him, there’s absolutely no guarantee his commitment will be commensurate with what the organization is willing to invest. Until the 26-year-old returns to his 24-year-old form, he’ll remain the epitome of burnt-out raw potential.
Since he was suspended and traded by the Cavs and then waived by the Chicago Bulls, questions about Bynum's real value have risen. Has he flamed out for the last time, or could there be a Bynum renaissance just around the corner?
Bynum’s lack of consistent production should be put in perspective. For that matter, everything we don’t like about him deserves perspective.
In his 24 games with Cleveland, he averaged just 20 minutes a game. The last time his minutes were in that neighborhood was 2006-07, before he'd even turned 20.
That probably goes a long way in explaining the attitude issues, but—more concretely—it also might explain that career-low shooting percentage: a woeful 42 percent from the field. Beyond the rustiness you’d expect after a year off the court, those 20 minutes a game aren’t much time to assemble a respectable stat line. The pressure of scoring in short order probably induced less advisable shots in the process.
It’s easy to judge from the outside, but it’s worth remembering Bynum wasn’t playing under normal conditions. Only half of his 2013-14 contract was guaranteed and the $12 million option for 2014-15 belonged to the Cavaliers.
It doesn’t matter who you are—those kinds of contracts create pressure to produce results.
Of course, these results weren’t what Bynum or Cleveland had in mind. And critics will maintain that were we really talking about a perennial All-Star, we wouldn't have to have these conversations in the first place.
But it hasn't been five or 10 years since the All-Star production. It was in 2011-12, the season before last, which means it's still a strong indicator of what he's capable of now (or in the near future).
That season, Bynum was the league's third-best rebounder at 11.8 per contest. He was the second-highest-scoring center with 18.7 points per game. His 56 percent shooting average wasn't a career-best, but it was impressive given that he was attempting over 13 shots a game—well above his previous high of 10.6 field-goal attempts per game.
It's outrageous to expect that kind of success 24 games into the first season back from serious injury, especially in a crowded frontcourt that included an emerging Tristan Thompson and tenacious Anderson Varejao. It was a small sample size of work, and it wasn't a fair representation of what Bynum can do when given minutes and touches.
Agent David Lee has undoubtedly reminded several front offices of just that.
When the closest thing to a New Year's resolution is reportedly not wanting to play basketball anymore, onlookers have the right to be skeptical about an earnest comeback.
A profile of Bynum wouldn't be complete without a complex survey of his psychology. So we shouldn't be thrown off by Chris Haynes' subsequent report for CSNNW, which quotes a source as saying Bynum “has not given up on basketball” and is “determined to prove everyone wrong.”
That's not the rationale you want to see from someone with mixed feelings about playing basketball. It's encouraging he still wants to play, but of course Bynum would be better served by a championship-oriented, team-first impulse motivating his return to action. So long as this is about proving people wrong, we'll continue to see the wrong basketball plays, uneven effort and poor shooting.
Seemingly contradictory reports could be chalked up to any number of things. Maybe one source has a better handle on Bynum's thinking. Maybe Bynum's thinking changes radically from one day to the next. That would be the least of his problems.
Chief among Bynum's liabilities is his lack of interest in getting better at basketball. He may not have given up on the game, but to hear Kareem Abdul-Jabbar explain it via Facebook, the 26-year-old gave up on real improvement a while ago: "When I worked with Andrew I found him to be bright & hardworking but I think he got bored with the repetitive nature of working on basketball fundamentals day in and day out..."
So Jabbar's later claim that Bynum "walks to the beat of 'a different drummer'" is a tad understated.
Other NBA head cases have marched to similar beats, but rarely to the tune of an All-Star selection. Though there's still just one to Bynum's name, it's proof that all it takes is a nudge in the right direction for size and innate talent to take over.
Bynum is a rare specimen, and that's true in more ways than one. But the remaining upside is significant enough for teams to overlook his mixed mental makeup. We've seen him undergo transformation, and a return to form isn't at all implausible.
The real story here isn't whether Bynum's washed up or damaged beyond repair. He isn't. His second act may well be better than the first. The real story is that Bynum may see that second act as a foregone conclusion.
But he still has something to prove to the teams he'd want to headline. You can admire his "moxy [sic]," but what matters is his market and, more practically, how much money the NBA's top teams have to spend.
We're getting the hint that Bynum would rather play for a contender, but Marc Stein's January 12 report for ESPN suggests the feeling may not be mutual, at least not yet. The Clippers aren't enthused, and even non-contenders like the Nets and Hawks are turning their noses up at Bynum.
The Dallas Mavericks look like a perfect fit on paper with just Samuel Dalembert and the undersized DeJuan Blair holding down the middle next to star forward Dirk Nowitzki. But according to president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, via SportsDayDFW, signing Bynum would be "a long to long-long-long shot."
Something will work out somewhere, but Bynum is overestimating his current market value if he expects a deal as sweet as the one he signed with the Cavs.
Is there a general view around the league that Bynum is "toxic" at this point?
Even if it's time for Bynum to keep his sense of monetary self-worth in check, there's a good case to be made that we still haven't seen him in the right situation—in part because the game has largely moved beyond back-to-the-basket, post-up centers and in part because Bynum-types need the right kind of attention from the right kind of people.
After rising through the ranks with Phil Jackson in his ear, Bynum and his neediness find themselves adrift in a league that still asks "What have you done for me lately?" There's a smugness on both sides. Bynum isn't willing to work his way back into favor, and the league isn't willing to "gamble" on a proven talent. This market more resembles a game of chicken than a courtship.
We shouldn't confuse the demands of that market with Bynum's actual value. It's hard to find the right fit, but that is in some ways a credit to how big Bynum is, in real and figurative terms. He needs touches and validation. He needs stern but forgiving leaders both on and off the floor, advocates who will hold him accountable as Jackson and Kobe did.
And he needs a contender, pedigree that teams like the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder could provide.
That doesn't mean Bynum will get what he wants (or needs), but one way or the other someone this good finds his way to the right situation. If it doesn't happen now, just wait. The Bynum we've been waiting for will be back.
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