Can Andrew Bynum Be a Legitimate Difference-Maker for Indiana Pacers?

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS - MARCH 11: Andrew Bynum #17 of the Indiana Pacers warms up before the game against the Boston Celtics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 11, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: 2014 NBAE  (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Andrew Bynum's ceiling with the Indiana Pacers has officially been upgraded to "happy accident."

Despite team president Larry Bird's flat-out denial, the Bynum acquisition didn't appear to be anything more than a ploy. It was a chance to deepen the Pacers' bench with extra size they would seldom use. It was the opportunity to one-up the Miami Heat.

It was, as Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher explained, a largely psychological gambit aimed at stripping Indiana of any and all excuses:

The Indiana Pacers are doing whatever they can to make their collection of players believe that the time to win a championship is now. That is why they signed wobbly-kneed center Andrew Bynum to a roster that was already one of the league's longest and tallest.

It doesn't matter if Bynum actually plays; a handful of league executives expressed doubt that he will. If he convinces the rest of the Pacers to play as if this is their last, best chance out of deference to the move, it will be worth it.

Confetti wasn't thrown by Pacers fans, nor was Bynum paraded around Indiana the way he was in Philadelphia and Cleveland. This was strictly business, and nothing else.

For a while, it wasn't even certain Bynum would play, let alone make a meaningful contribution. The first 18 games of his Pacers tenure were spent resting, rehabbing and presumably flamenco dancing, and doing whatever else it is injury-prone 7-footers do.

Not once did it appear that Bynum was anything more than insurance. Not once. 

Then he played. Sixteen minutes, in fact. Sixteen meaningful and actual minutes, and he was productive.

In 16 minutes against the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night, Bynum went for eight points and 10 rebounds on 3-of-4 shooting from the floor. In true rusty fashion, he also committed three turnovers and three fouls. 

Still, it was an encouraging performance from an oft-criticized big man who hadn't played since Dec. 26. The Pacers couldn't have asked for a smoother debut. For much of his time on the floor, Bynum looked like Bynum: partially disinterested and confused, mostly fit to score and rebound.

To that we must ask: Is Bynum on the path back to greatness, complete with successive All-Star appearances, with the Pacers?

Relax, overeager arbiters. That's not the question.

Can Bynum actually be more than an infrequently used insurance policy? That's the real inquest, and it comes bearing no simple answer. 

 

The Roy Hibbert Conundrum

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 07:  Roy Hibbert #55 of the Indiana Pacers  celebrates during overtime in the118-113 win over the Portland Trailblazers  at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on February 7, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

One game isn't enough to draw conclusions that extend beyond traditionally impulsive 24-hour windows. The Bynum of yesterday isn't necessarily the Bynum Indiana will see today, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, or even the day after that. 

Rickety knees and tottering diligence has reduced Bynum to a wild card who cannot guarantee his availability or production. Anything he does must be approached with skepticism and the same liquid courage used to endure recurrent lapses in on-court judgment that prevail even during his most illustrious performances.

But dismissing Bynum's Pacers debut as just one game, as just one atomic glimmer of hope overlooks one simple, yet glaring fact: Indiana needs him.

The center position hasn't been a signboard for stability this season. From Roy Hibbert to Ian Mahinmi, the productivity up front has been underwhelming. 

Hibbert is the biggest culprit, producing at a rate hardly emblematic of someone who, until next season, is the team's highest-paid player. He's averaging 11.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in what has been a season of slight regression.

The (Slight) Decline of Roy Hibbert
SeasonMPGPTSFG%REBSBLKSOff. Rtg.Def. Rtg.
2012-1328.711.944.88.32.610197
2013-1430.311.346.37.32.410397
Last 729.68.946.48.91.997.3105.4
Via Basketball-Reference and NBA.com.

Over the last seven games, Hibbert has been especially, well, awful. He's valued for his defense, but the Pacers, the league's best defensive team, haven't fared well with him on that end of late.

Rebounding is also an issue, in that Hibbert is often nonexistent on the glass. He's eclipsed 10 rebounds just twice since Jan. 30 and once since Feb. 27, despite routinely playing over 30 minutes per game. Bynum, on the other hand, logged 16 minutes Tuesday and grabbed 10, giving him as many double-digit rebounding games as Hibbert has registered in his last 14.

"All the rebounds came my way and I just grabbed them," Bynum told reporters afterward, via the Indianapolis Star's Phil Richards.

That must mean most rebounds have sprouted legs and beelined their way out of Hibbert's reach this season. 

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 16:  Roy Hibbert #55 of the Eastern Conference during the game against the Western Conference at the 2014 NBA All-Star Game as part of the 2014 All-Star Weekend at Smoothie King Center on February 16, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisi
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

None of this is to say Hibbert doesn't rebound at all. He brought down nine against the Celtics. Yet, that was still one less than Bynum in double the playing time (32 minutes).

At 7'2", one would expect Hibbert to crash the glass more. That he's on pace to become just the seventh player in NBA history standing taller than 7'0" to grab under 7.5 rebounds per game in 30-plus minutes isn't impressive. It's troubling.

Unlike Hibbert, Bynum also boasts proven scoring ability. Where he's averaged 13 or more points per game four times throughout his career, Hibbert has never surpassed 12.8.

This doesn't mean Bynum is better or that he's going to be better, but he can help. He can produce on offense at a relatively infecund position for a team that ranks in the bottom 10 of offensive efficiency.

 

Playing Nice

INDIANAPOLIS - MARCH 11: Andrew Bynum #17 of the Indiana Pacers boxes out against the Boston Celtics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 11, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or u
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Locker room influence isn't a problem, either.

There was a moment Tuesday when Bynum appeared to be upset with Lance Stephenson, per the New York Daily News' Frank Isola, which is usually cause to shine the official disgruntled Bynum signal in the sky:

Afterward, though, there didn't appear to be an issue. Paul George even described Bynum as something he hasn't been called in a long time, if ever.

"He's really bought into the whole locker room," George alleged, via Richards. "He's been a great teammate." 

Not only is Bynum back, playing and trying, but he hasn't been destructive? Now we've seen and heard everything. 

All that really means is, provided he builds upon his debut, Bynum will see more minutes than anticipated. And those minutes will come at the expense of both Hibbert and Mahinmi, who haven't combined for the impact the Pacers want and need.

 

Essential, Not Auxilliary

Mar 11, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Andrew Bynum (17) runs up court during a game against the Boston Celtics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With the Pacers struggling to maintain their chemistry—even in some victories—there's no time to play sentimental favorites.

Idealizing Hibbert's season is impossible. Playing within the starting five masks many of his flaws in positive plus-ratings, but not even those can save him now.

Bynum's debut wasn't absolutely dominant or a precursor to his return to stardom. It was good—great, even. It was an encouraging step the Pacers needed to see. They needed to know their center position is steeped in more talent than the limited Hibbert can provide.

They needed to know Bynum can still play, because they need him to play.

"He changes the game and has a presence at both ends," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, per Richards. "He's here for a reason."

Once shrouded in mystery, that reason is now clear.

Bynum isn't in Indiana for the sole purpose of creating a psychological advantage or sticking it to the Heat, nor is he a nominal insurance policy.

If he keeps this up and if the Pacers keep bearing witness to a mercurial Hibbert, he's a necessity.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required), and salary information via ShamSports.