How Andrew Bynum's NBA Career Should Have Turned out

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2014

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When the Cleveland Cavaliers suspended Andrew Bynum indefinitely, it didn't necessarily signal the end of his NBA career. But that's only because it might actually have ended two years ago.

Physically beaten down and showing serious signs of mental disengagement, Bynum is a wreck adrift in the NBA sea.

Maybe it didn't have to be this way, though. Maybe things could have gone differently for Bynum if he'd avoided an injury here or acted a little more like a grown-up there. Throughout the big man's career, there have been opportunities for change.

But he hasn't capitalized on any of them. And now it's probably too late.

By looking back at how Bynum's tenure has gone—and, more importantly, how it could have gone—we can get a sense of how his current predicament might have been avoided.

How It Went in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 30:  Andrew Bynum #17 of the Los Angeles Lakers is announced as the newest addition to the team from the 2005 NBA Draft by Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak on June 30, 2005 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO U
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers took Bynum with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2005 draft, making him the youngest player to ever suit up for an NBA team. His first two seasons in L.A. were inauspicious, but he managed to play in all 82 games during his second year—a feat he'd never again achieve.

A dislocated kneecap in 2008 was the first pebble in what would soon become an injury avalanche, but Bynum fought through a torn MCL the next season to compete (and win) against Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.

After rehabbing his MCL tear, Bynum logged 65 games in the 2009-10 regular season. A new knee injury, this time a hyperextension in L.A.'s first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, didn't derail the Lakers' second straight title run. When the dust had settled on that successful campaign, Pau Gasol, all-around good dude that he is, praised Bynum for gutting out a painful postseason.

Per the Associated Press (via USA Today), Gasol said Bynum's tenacity was "remarkable. He gave his best. He sacrificed himself in order to help the team and have a better chance to win the championship."

Take note of that comment, as it'd be the last time anybody said something good about Bynum's willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the team.

Shortly after Gasol's kind words, the funny business with Bynum's knees and commitment level began. He waited until after a vacation to have surgery on a torn meniscus following the 2009-10 campaign, effectively pushing his recovery time into the upcoming season.

His talent was never in short supply, though, as he eventually recovered to go on a tear after the All-Star break in 2010-11. When the playoffs again rolled around, Bynum was a beast, causing New Orleans Hornets coach Monty Williams to comment after a Lakers victory (per the Associated Press via ESPN).

"Every time he got an offensive rebound, it was deflating," Williams said. "You don't really realize how good he is until you face him in a series. Kobe's Kobe, but I thought Bynum decided the series. He was that good."

Naturally, Bynum turned that praise sour by frustratedly clubbing J.J. Barea in the subsequent series against the Dallas Mavericks.

As questions about his maturity and commitment grew louder, Bynum returned in 2011-12 to post his most dominant season ever. He played 60 games, earned his first and only All-Star nod and averaged 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds. But he also clashed with head coach Mike Brown, earning a seat on the bench for an ill-advised three-point attempt against the Golden State Warriors on March 28.

It seemed that just as his talent was coming to a head, so was his immaturity.

The Lakers traded Bynum to the Philadelphia 76ers on August 10, 2012 in the four-team deal that brought Howard to Los Angeles. After a tumultuous seven years with the Lakers, Bynum was about to become somebody else's problem.

How It Should Have Gone in Los Angeles

ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 14:  Andrew Bynum #17 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates with the Larry O'Brien Championship trophy in the locker room after the Lakers won 99-86 to win the NBA Championship against the Orlando Magic in Game Five of the 2009 NBA Final
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Any number of things could have gone differently for Bynum in L.A.

If he'd come into the league as a bit more of an adult, perhaps with a little college seasoning, maybe the attitude issues that eventually developed would have remained dormant. Then again, it's awfully hard to imagine him ignoring the financial allure of the NBA when he was a high school prospect, especially with the writing on the wall that the league was going to shut off that pipeline the following season.

And maybe it wasn't ideal for Bynum to spend his most formative years under Kobe Bryant, whose track record of nurturing young talent isn't great. Bryant typically breaks teammates down before building them back up. So far, only Gasol has managed to complete that second stage.

Everybody else just ended up broken.

Obviously, injuries were the real killer for Bynum in Los Angeles. If he'd been able to stay healthier, it's almost a certainty that he would have enjoyed another couple of All-Star seasons and might have even helped the Lakers to another title along the way.

Ultimately, though, Bynum played very well (when healthy) from his third year on. And there's not really any scenario in which the Lakers wouldn't have dealt him to get Howard. So, his largely successful tenure in Los Angeles could have gone a little better with some improved injury luck, but the Lakers got just about everything they could have expected from Bynum.

How It Went in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA, PA - August 15 :  Andrew Bynum #33 of the Philadelphia 76ers speaks to the media during a press conference after being traded from the Los Angeles Lakers on August 15, 2012 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. N
David Dow/Getty Images

To be blunt: not well.

Shortly before training camp in 2012, Bynum underwent treatment designed to ease the pain in his arthritic knees. Then he was diagnosed with a bone bruise. Then, a couple of weeks into the 2012-13 season, he injured his left knee while bowling (and not, by the way, practicing or playing in actual basketball games).

Per Brian Windhorst and Chris Broussard of ESPN, Bynum offered up even more good news about his knees shortly thereafter.

"I had a little bit of a setback, and we're just working through some issues with the right knee," Bynum said. "I kind of have a mirror thing going on with my left knee. I don't know what's going on, but the doctors are saying pretty much that it's a weakened cartilage state."

In the midst of that controversy, a former teammate of Bynum's dropped this revealing bombshell on SLAM Magazine senior editor Tzvi Twersky (via Spike Eskin of CBSSports.com): "I don’t know if that’s true [the bowling], but I do know that I’ve never met another player in the league who likes basketball less [than Bynum].”


"Weakened cartilage state" turned out to be an understatement. Bynum had season-ending arthroscopic surgery on both knees on March 19.

The Sixers didn't get a single NBA minute from the guy they hoped would be their franchise cornerstone. Following a dismally disappointing season, they let Bynum walk away as a free agent.

How It Should Have Gone in Philadelphia

Again, injuries seem to be the main culprit for Bynum's failures in his second NBA stop. But there was also an increasing sense in Philly that he just wasn't interested in overcoming the various maladies that befell him.

It's not Bynum's fault that his knees degenerated after leaving L.A. When the body decides it's time to break down, it breaks down.

But maybe he could have been more committed to conditioning. Maybe he could have worked a little harder in his rehab. Maybe he could have skipped the bowling alley.

One thing that could definitely have gone better was the way Bynum presented himself during his lost season. His hair was a bigger story than he was, and while it's silly to focus on his appearance in any serious way, the fact that his goofy coif coincided with a detached demeanor was a bad look in more ways than one.

Oct 15, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Andrew Bynum (33) before the game against the Boston Celtics at the Wachovia Center. The Sixers defeated the Celtics 107-75. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

In an alternate universe, Bynum could have used his time in Philadelphia to prove to the world that he was ready to build on his breakout 2011-12 season. If healthy and fully committed, he would almost certainly have helped the Sixers challenge for a playoff spot. Even without him, Philly missed out on the No. 8 seed by just four games.

Frankly, a strong performance in 2012-13 would have netted Bynum a max deal as a free agent, and would almost certainly have made him one of the hottest commodities on the market. Remember, he was a beast in his final year with the Lakers. Before everything went wrong in Philadelphia, it seemed like he was poised to take another step forward.

How It Went in Cleveland

Dec 23, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Andrew Bynum reacts in the second quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

You'll note the past tense in the heading above. It's there because Bynum's time with the Cavs is most assuredly over.

After signing a heavily incentivized, partially guaranteed contract on July 19, Bynum actually debuted in Cleveland's season opener on Oct. 30. He looked almost nothing like the guy who averaged 19 and 12 for the Lakers two years ago, but at least he was on the floor.

On Nov. 30, he scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked five shots in a 97-93 win over the Chicago Bulls. That would mark the high point in Bynum's Cleveland tenure.

The Cavs suspended him indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team on Dec. 28, which brings us right up to where we are now. In hindsight, there were some indicators that things were headed downhill, despite a couple of flashback performances from Bynum.

Sam Amico of FOX Sports quoted Bynum on Nov. 8 as saying: 

Retirement was a thought, it was a serious thought. It still is. It's tough to enjoy the game because of how limited I am physically. I'm working through that. Every now and again I do (think about retirement). …It's still career-threatening. I'm a shell of myself on the court right now. I'm just struggling mentally.

And Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted about Bynum's mental state shortly after the suspension announcement on Dec. 28:

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, that wasn't a good sign.

How It Should Have Gone in Cleveland

When you're seven feet tall and still have some talent, there's really no such thing as a "last chance." But Bynum's time in Cleveland was pretty darn close.

If he'd been able to quietly fit in, providing whatever defensive presence Mike Brown required while keeping his mouth shut, both he and the Cavs would be in much better shape right now. In fact, with the East being as weak as it is, Bynum could easily have pushed the Cavaliers into a playoff spot with minimal effort.

This could have been special.
This could have been special.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Instead, he's undermining the team and spewing woe-is-me rhetoric to anybody who'll listen. At the very least, Bynum could have quietly walked away from basketball. He chose to poison his team instead.

Andrew Bynum and Fatalism

In a perfect world, one that included do-overs and magic wands capable of healing knees and restoring desires to play basketball, we'd be talking about Bynum in the same breath as Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol and other elite centers.

Despite a career-long lack of commitment, rampant immaturity and tons of injuries, he was on that path when he left the Lakers in 2012.

But the world isn't perfect and no such magic wands exist. So even if Bynum lands with a fourth team in the near future, there's just no reason to expect anything different from what we've seen already. He's been in three distinct NBA situations so far, each of them unique.

As the lone constant in all three experiments, it's now clear that Bynum—not his situation—is the problem.

The real question is: Could things have ever turned out any other way? That sounds awfully fatalistic, but it's worth pondering.

It's hard to know whether Bynum's apparent distaste for basketball came before or after injuries made the sport a whole lot less fun to play. If he, like so many good seven-foot athletes, was basically pushed into something he never embraced in the first place, it seems like he'd have eventually soured on hoops even without the injuries.

BEREA, OH - OCTOBER 5:  Andrew Bynum #21 of the Cleveland Cavaliers rests on the bench during their annual Wine & Gold Scrimmage at The Rudolph Ursprung Gymnasium on October 5, 2013 in Berea, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Ultimately, Bynum came into the league too young, might not have really wanted to be there in the first place and suffered injuries that made a task he didn't like to begin with even more unpleasant. The fact that he wasn't mentally invested in hoops probably curtailed his rehab efforts, which created a vicious cycle of disinterest and physical decline.

Saying his career could or should have turned out differently is basically arguing "If every situation, and the principal actor, were completely different, the outcome would have been better."

Well, yeah, that's true.

But because Bynum is who he is and because of the circumstances surrounding his career, there was really no other way for this saga to play out.