Andrew Bynum's latest lengthy absence is finally over. The 7-footer is set to make his Pacers debut in Tuesday's contest against Boston Celtics, according to head coach Frank Vogel, via the team's official Twitter:
Coach Vogel reported that Andrew Bynum will play in tonight's game against the Celtics.— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) March 11, 2014
Vogel clarified Bynum's role for the meeting with the Celtics, via the Pacers:
Vogel said he planned for Andrew Bynum to debut this week. With Mahinmi's bruised rib, Bynum will fill in at backup center.— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) March 11, 2014
With 4:22 remaining in the first period, Bynum officially made his Pacers debut. The team's Twitter account snapped a picture:
Less than a minute later he threw down his first dunk:
Bynum ended up playing 16 minutes, scoring eight points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the Pacers 93-84 win over the Celtics.
Bynum, 26, has not played since Dec. 26 when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Since his last game, Bynum has been suspended, deactivated with pay, traded and subsequently released before finding footing in Indiana.
He then missed a lengthy stretch of games after signing with the Pacers, working himself into game shape and learning Vogel's intricate, team-based defensive system. Vogel told Candace Buckner of USA Today the lengthy build-up period was because the team expects Bynum to be a key contributor for the rest of the season:
I want to make sure he's in really top shape and the situation where he's going to be at his best. The goal is to get him where he's able to play every night. That's the plan. We're trying to build up strength in his knee from a preventative standpoint and when he does start playing, he's an every day player for us.
The Pacers remain ensconced in a bitter battle with the Miami Heat for the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference. But Indiana's decision to sign Bynum was far more about the months of May and June than anything down the stretch.
Bynum has no chance of supplanting Roy Hibbert or anyone in the Pacers' world-beating starting lineup, but if things go well, he could be Vogel's top big off the bench. Indiana suffers on both ends of the floor when Hibbert sits and Ian Mahinmi enters the game, per NBAWowy, and adding someone like Bynum could give the Pacers the league's best big rotation.
Mostly derided after aborted stays in Philadelphia and Cleveland, it's easy to forget Bynum was one of the league's best two-way centers just two seasons ago. His debilitating knee injuries make it impossible to expect he ever matches the 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks he averaged in 2011-12 with the Los Angeles Lakers, but a Bynum is an upgrade from Mahinmi on both ends.
Like nearly everything, this was an acquisition meant to counteract Miami. The Heat, who prefer a small-ball style with Chris Bosh at center, have struggled mightily to defend Hibbert in the post. Should Bynum stay healthy and committed enough to earn Vogel's trust, the Pacers will have a 48-minute size advantage should they choose to deploy it.
Commitment, though, is the key. Bynum's last two professional stops were mired with bouts of immaturity and questions about his desire to get on the floor. He admitted to purposely destructive behavior with the Cavaliers, disrupting practice with half-court shots and undermining the coaching staff.
"Those are the two things I did," Bynum told Buckner. "I did them on purpose because it was over there for me."
After a breaking point, Cleveland suspended Bynum for what amounted to one game before paying him to stay away. Thanks to a clause in his contract, the Cavs were then able to trade Bynum and draft picks to the Chicago Bulls for forward Luol Deng—after which the Bulls immediately released him for financial relief.
Now officially on his third team of the season and fifth of the last three seasons, Bynum says he's reformed. He doesn't necessarily understand his detractors—even if their reasons are entirely valid—but still in his prime NBA years, Bynum knows how to keep them quiet.
"They can say whatever they want, but I know if I go out here and put 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds) up, it's quiet," Bynum said, per Buckner. "So, I mean, if that's the case then people will always say something. So if you're worried about that all the time, it gets in the way of you accomplishing the things you want to."
Talk, though, is cheap when a championship is involved. Bynum looked like a shell of his former self in Cleveland, averaging 8.4 points per game on 41.9 percent from the floor and serving as a black hole in the Cavs offense.
He won't be afforded the same leeway in Indiana. Vogel has the infrastructure in place to cut bait without so much as blinking. We'll just have to see whether Bynum is ready to finally give the commitment he's talked about.
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