Don't say Andrew Bynum has the opportunity of a lifetime.
What the Indiana Pacers have really given Bynum is an NBA lifeline, the opportunity to right and salvage what's left of a promising career turned doleful wreckage by injuries, indifference and lethargy. When they signed Bynum for the remainder of the 2013-14 season, they gave him a second chance...for the umpteenth time.
This is a lifeline Bynum has received before, first (and many times) with the Los Angeles Lakers, and most recently with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Each time—even when he was an All-Star in 2012—he's given those involved more reasons to doubt him.
Although he's considered a low-risk, high-reward gamble for the Pacers, perception hasn't changed. If it had, Bynum wouldn't have been a free agent for so long before landing a contract.
Bynum may be "low risk-high reward" but he's been a free agent for 3 weeks after being waived and only one team brought him in. Says a lot.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) February 1, 2014
For the first time, Bynum is running out of second chances. Conventional wisdom would have us believe there will always be NBA homes for 7-footers who have enough hand-eye coordination to microwave their own pancakes, but simple things—like towering over people who don't walk on stilts—are no longer enough for Bynum.
Flame out with the Pacers, one of the Association's most stable franchises, and the race to assist Bynum in his atonement beyond this season won't be a race at all.
Understanding His Role
Wherever Bynum has gone, he's brought unmitigated ignorance with him, rarely understanding his role and always expecting treatment he didn't deserve.
No such mistake can be made in Indy, as the Pacers aren't relying on him to do anything substantial or of real value at all.
FOX 59's Larry Hawley provided us with a telling glimpse of Bynum's banner:
Seeing Bynum's picture sandwiched between reserves Chris Copeland and Rasual Butler is fitting. That's what he is in Indiana—a reserve. Not the starting center, a backup.
It's a situation he's never really found himself in before. At every stop, he was considered the team's best big man or a key cog in a playoff or championship machine, even in Cleveland.
But not anymore.
Is playing second fiddle to someone—even an All-Star like Roy Hibbert—something he's capable of embracing? If he really wants to continue playing basketball, and he actually wants to prove his critics wrong, he has no choice.
"It really wasn’t a hard decision, I think it’s the right fit for me and, in all honesty, I think we’ve got the best chance of winning," said Bynum in Indy's announcement. "It will be great to back up Roy and I’ll do whatever I can to help this team."
Talk is cheap. Bynum has to really mean it.
Head coach Frank Vogel isn't going to guarantee Bynum playing time, and his new teammates aren't going to coddle or tolerate antics they consider unacceptable.
Bird, on impact to chemistry: "The way these guys roll around here, I think they can handle themselves. They control their own locker room."— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) February 1, 2014
Indiana isn't Los Angeles, where winning remedies all. Or Cleveland, where dysfunction and chaos are frequent bedfellows. Indiana is Indiana. Players are team and city ambassadors, and must uphold the ideals and abide by the morals these Pacers set for them.
The Pacers' current success is founded upon selflessness and discipline, two virtues Bynum emanates less frequently than the average person mixes cake batter into their hamburger meat. Lance Stephenson has even fallen into line in Indiana, though, and Bynum must do the same.
If he doesn't, if he cannot make it work on a player-friendly team known for successfully developing projects, there will be nothing left of his career to salvage.
Think of what being of sound mind on a high-profile team will do for Bynum's future.
Forget about showing the world he's still a star. That's not going to happen. Even if he is (he's not), the Pacers didn't bring him in to give him that opportunity.
Despite what team president Larry Bird says, per the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy, he could simply be a pawn in Indiana's cat-and-mouse game with the Miami Heat.
Bird on perception he signed Bynum to keep him away from Heat: "That's about the dumbest thing I ever heard. We dont have money like that."— Stefan Bondy (@NYDNInterNets) February 1, 2014
You know what? That's a good thing.
This may not be the best situation for Bynum to showcase his on-court value, but it's the best place for him to prove, once and for all, that he can be part of a team.
Accepting his role as a seldom-used reserve, wearing a smile and continuing to say all the right things shows he's ready to shed the liability label he's earned, which makes him more likely to find a new home next year.
Remember, as Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski previously noted, there's some serious doubt as to whether Bynum cares about basketball at all, and justifiably so.
About Bynum suspension, league source tells Yahoo: "He doesn't want to play basketball anymore. He never liked it that much in first place."— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) December 28, 2013
By all appearances, Bynum has approached his time in the NBA like a medically sedated existentialist would a birthday party at the circus—with supreme indifference. There's been no trace of fight or resistance; no sign that those (like me) who continue to chide him are wrong.
For once, he can let his action do the talking, not his inaction or light-minded approach to the game so many of his peers love.
This isn't complicated stuff. Per The Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner, Bynum's new teammates barely wanted to talk about him:
David West, who was requested by media, could be overheard: "What Larry say? If you have any questions ask Frank." Didn't want to talk Bynum— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) February 1, 2014
That's how much he means to the Pacers. To them, he's another face. Not an answer or a building block—another player barely worth a shoulder shrug.
Has Bynum run out of second chances?
Playing for that type of team, alongside these kinds of players, under no certain terms, will give him the reality check he's long needed but constantly evaded and rejected. And if he handles this one final test properly, the narrative can start to shift. Bynum can move on.
We can move on.
Fail to seize this opportunity, and Bynum's future in the NBA becomes barren of second chances, beclouded by incurable uncertainty.