Two games. Thirty-six minutes. Twenty-three points. Nineteen rebounds. One block.
That's all it took for me to realize I was wrong about Andrew Bynum. That's all it took for me, among many others, to understand not even the stable, close-knit Indiana Pacers could reverse a career gone adrift.
Following Bynum's first game with Indiana, optimism spread. Hasty, devil-may-care conviction took over. One eight-point, 10-rebound performance against the Boston Celtics was proof enough Bynum could succeed in Indiana, that he could be something other than dead weight to an NBA team once again.
Perhaps caught up in the moment, yours truly reflexively concluded Bynum could make a stand with the Pacers:
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.
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.
For the most part, that's all still true.
But the one caveat that kept surfacing then—even after the 15-point, nine-rebound follow-up to his debut—and continues crop up now is Bynum's health. He can contribute if he is healthy. He can be more than an insurance policy and nominal gambit if he is healthy.
The Pacers can count on him to play, to do anything of value if he is healthy.
Somewhere, lost in bursts of encouraging play, Bynum's health became secondary to basal harbingers of cheer when really, everything, however minor, is contingent upon his knees. And early indications are those knees, the focus of his well-being, haven't improved.
Not 48 hours after Bynum recorded 15 points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes against the underachieving Detroit Pistons, Pacers coach Frank Vogel came bearing bad news:
Coach Vogel reports that Andrew Bynum had some knee swelling and is out for tonight's game against the Sixers.— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) March 17, 2014
Bleacher Report's Will Carroll rolled out even worse news soon after:
It's more than just soreness for Bynum. Source tells me "significant swelling." Did he play too much?— Will Carroll (@injuryexpert) March 18, 2014
Later on, the news got even worse:
After today's practice, Bynum said doctors are still reviewing the MRI on his knee but that "this one is a little more concerning for me."— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) March 18, 2014
And, per 1070 The Fan's Conrad Brunner, even worse still:
Bynum will not travel with #pacers to NY. Said swelling in R knee was worst he has experienced since days with Lakers. Uh-oh.— Conrad Brunner (@1070Bruno) March 18, 2014
Carroll later expanded upon Bynum's all-too familiar situation, addressing its severity head-on:
Andrew Bynum has severely damaged knees. Through multiple surgeries and the best efforts of four different NBA medical staffs, no one has been able to find a way to get him healthy and keep him productive.
Despite limited minutes in two games for the Pacers, Bynum is already having what was described to me by a source as "significant swelling." The running, jumping and forces of even limited play didn't keep his knees from reacting.
Some may be residual swelling or even damage from workouts and rehab, but given that he looked mobile in his first game for the Pacers, we have to assume that the worst of it came from his game work.
At best, the team can now work to get him back to function, but it appears that they will have to pick and choose when he is used, knowing he will take time—perhaps significant time—to get back to a usable level of health.
There's no guarantee Bynum's situation isn't even more grave than this. Getting him "back to function" may not even be an option, which is exactly what the Pacers must count on. So, nothing.
The Pacers were already curbing his playing time, hoping limited action could render him serviceable. Two games and 36 minutes later, Bynum's knees are up to their old, career-threatening tricks.
In theory, that should be of more concern to Bynum than the Pacers. He is additional depth, an extra body. This is what the Pacers signed up for, because they could afford to sign up for it.
But the lines between luxury and essentiality quickly became obscured by Bynum's reassuring play. It didn't take long for him to be seen as necessary to Indiana's championship pursuit, in ways that went beyond his numbers.
On the season, Basketball-Reference shows that the former Hoya has a 97 defensive rating. During his last handful of games, though, he's been on the wrong side of that mark with alarming frequency. Here are his last 15 defensive ratings, in chronological order: 98, 103, 107, 92, 102, 111, 102, 109, 121, 124, 124, 94, 95, 101, 94.
His average defensive rating during the stretch? A sky-high 105, which pales in comparison to the 95 DRtg he boasted heading into the stretch of futility.
That's an issue. Hibbert has always been prone to stretches of inconsistency and disappearing acts on offense, but defense is supposed to be his saving grace.
There is no max contract without Hibbert's defense, without his profound impact on that side of the floor. That's why he's in Indiana: to buoy the Pacers' elite defense.
When he struggles, they struggle. It's that simple. Though the Pacers still have the NBA's best defensive rating (98.1), they've ranked 10th over their last 15 games, according to NBA.com (subscription required), allowing 102.2 points per 100 possessions.
It's no surprise their defensive regression coincides with Hibbert's struggles. And it's no surprise they're a rather unimpressive 10-5 during that stretch and finding it difficult to put away inferior and tank-tastic opponents like the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz.
"I just haven't been playing the best," Hibbert told Pacers.com's Mark Montieth after he was limited to eight points against Philly. "I have to do better. But we're winning and I'm happy for that. It was just good to see one of those baskets go in."
Hibbert's underwhelming performance matters, because it makes Bynum matter.
Promise Nothing, Expect Less
Subpar offenses like Indiana's cannot survive without elite defense and superior glass-crashing. Bynum didn't improve the Pacers defensively, but he gave them someone who could score and rebound more than Hibbert while playing significantly less.
Bynum corralled at least nine rebounds twice in two appearances for the Pacers. Hibbert, meanwhile, has done the same twice in his last 17 games. Bynum also put in 15 points once through the two games he played; Hibbert has scored at least 15 points just once in his last 10.
So yes, Bynum mattered. He matters.
But he can't anymore.
The Pacers cannot count on Bynum for anything—not scoring and rebounding to supplant Hibbert's bridled numbers, not insurance at center, not anything.
What should the Pacers expect from Andrew Bynum moving forward?
After all this, Bynum must return to the leisurely comfort Indiana first expected him to be. If he plays, he plays. If he doesn't, he doesn't.
And he probably won't. Not more than a few minutes—less than 20—here or there. Maybe not even at all.
Strengthening Indiana's performance at the 5 is up to Hibbert, like it's always been. Neither Bynum nor Ian Mahinmi will bring what he cannot. Hibbert must bring everything. Rebounding, shot-blocking, general defense, the occasional basket—everything.
Because two games and 36 minutes later, it's once again painfully apparent Bynum cannot be counted on for anything at all.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed.