NBA Free Agents 2013: Andrew Bynum Signing with Cavs Is a Win-Win Move

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2013

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

Cleveland's The Corner Alley better make sure their roof can fit a seven-footer, because Andrew Bynum will be spending the 2013-14 season in the greater Ohio area.

ESPN's Chris Broussard was the first to report Bynum would be signing with the Cavaliers, ending a process that leaves little dominoes left on the NBA free-agency board. The deal will be for two years and $24.5 million, per Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. Only $6 million of that is guaranteed and the second year is a team option.

Bynum missed his only season with the Philadelphia 76ers, knee injuries again cropping up for the umpteenth time in his career. The moments after Bynum's deal was announced were filled with the jovial joke-spewing that one would expect, each person with a social media account doing their Mad Libs-worthy stand-up routine.

Not that I'm above that. Terrible jokes are 99 percent of my Twitter feed—just not in this case. It's not because I like Bynum as a player or give two damns about the Cavaliers franchise, but mostly because the basketball implications of this deal could be really, really interesting.

The last time Bynum touched an NBA floor, he was the second-best center in basketball. He averaged 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. The Lakers were almost four points better per 100 possessions when Bynum was on the floor. They also rebounded at a higher percentage and had a better field-goal percentage with him on the floor.

These are all expected statistics. Bynum was one of the 15 best players in basketball during his last season in Los Angeles. 

But a full season has passed since Bynum last set foot on an NBA floor. It's easy to remember the bad—his weird hair, the bowling incident etc.—and forget just how great he was in 2011-12—especially on the low block.

Always billed as one of the more polished offensive centers in the league, the numbers bore that out. Bynum averaged 0.89 points per possession and shot 46.2 percent on possessions that began with posting up, according to Synergy Sports.

Those are impressive numbers in and of themselves, especially as we continue finding out that traditional low-block possessions aren't all that efficient. But considering 54.2 percent of Bynum's possessions that ended in a shot attempt, free throws or a turnover began in the post, his consistent proficiency down low made him a unique weapon for the Lakers' offense.

While folks in Los Angeles often fixated on Bynum's couple of stupid three-pointers, his basketball IQ is woefully underrated. He was one of the league's most efficient cutters around the basket, averaging 1.53 points per possession, and was solid on the limited times Los Angeles used him in pick-and-roll situations.

Bynum isn't a great pick-and-roll defender—his feet are understandably slow—but he's above-average in the post. Opposing players only shot 37.5 percent against him down low and his big body swallowed up offensive players in isolation. All of that was enough to at least make it an argument that Bynum could have been the better of the two centers in the Howard deal. 

A year later? Things are a bit different. By most measures, Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol has supplanted both Howard and Bynum on the center hierarchy. His ability to pass on the high post, knock down mid-range jumpers and work with the greatest array of post moves in the league makes him the evolutionary center for this generation.

Howard still looms and could reclaim his mantle with a resurgent season with the Houston Rockets.

No player affects the game more than Howard when he's fully healthy—save for LeBron James. He'll get to be a focal point next year with the Rockets and will be surrounded by a cast that's more conducive to his skill set—at least on paper. 

Where Bynum fits into this hierarchy is interesting. It's become in-vogue to wonder how much Bynum has "left in his tank" even if he's on the floor, which is a ridiculous assertion. Bynum is 25. He'll be 26 in October. His knees were born in the Civil War era, which is kind of the point of this nonsense. But if Bynum is on the floora big if—he'll probably be somewhere inside the top five to seven best centers in the league. 

Even a diminished version of Bynum would help Cleveland. Let's say, for instance, that Bynum is 75 percent of the player he was in 2011-12, which I'd say is a relatively fair estimate—perhaps even too pessimistic. That's still 14 points, nine rebounds and a block per night. 

Are we starting to get the picture why Cleveland was gung-ho to give Bynum this deal? The team is shooting for the stars, hoping to hit a lottery on a ticket they essentially got for free. 

The deal is more murky from Bynum's side, but only slightly more-so. 

I was a major proponent of Bynum and his camp shopping around for long-term offers. It's an argument that still stands to this moment, with all of the reasons Bynum's camp should have pushed for the most guaranteed money possible looming.

We've already covered that Bynum's contract is only superficial for two years and $24.5 million. It's essentially an NFL contract. The Cavaliers are giving Bynum $6 million guaranteed—something of a signing bonus—and then lacing the remaining $18.5 million on performance-based and injury-based clauses.

That money, in the large scheme of things, means little to nothing. If the NFL's salary structure has taught us anything, it's that only guaranteed money matters when negotiating contracts.

It's possibly the worst contract given to a superstar talent during this era. Though it was spread over three seasons, Zaza Pachulia was guaranteed $15 million by the Milwaukee Bucks. This $6 million might be the last NBA money Bynum ever sees. 

The problem in criticizing the deal is that it seems to be the best offered. ESPN's Marc Stein reported that neither the Dallas Mavericks nor the Atlanta Hawks, Bynum's two other most notable suitors, even made him a formal contract offer:

It's possible that both teams would have reached out more formally if Bynum's camp would have waited.

The Mavericks are so desperate that they're talking to Samuel Dalembert's representatives after losing out on Bynum, according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. Going from the Dwight Howard chase to the Bynum chase all the way down to Dalembert might have been sobering enough for Mark Cuban to guarantee a second year a week or two down the line.

Atlanta has dipped its toes into about every mid-tier free agent's pool this summer and already landed Paul Millsap. Going there seemed like a remote possibility to begin with, so it was probably always down to Dallas and Cleveland.

That said, the Cavs' deal came with a short acceptance window. Wojnarowski noted that Cleveland was "pushing" Bynum to sign the offer beginning on Monday and had no patience for him dilly-dallying around. The Cavs wanted an answer and they wanted it quickly—ostensibly so they could move on and use their cap space on another free agent should he decline.

Considering that Cleveland's was the only formal offer he received, Bynum's representation probably advised him to take the money while it was still on the table.

That decision ultimately led to Bynum finding his best-possible situation—both for his health and for his career.

The Cavaliers already boast a big-man rotation that includes Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao, two incumbents who both have their noticeable strengths. Varejao was a do-everything, high-energy player who averaged 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds a night before going down with a season-ending injury. Thompson emerged down the stretch when Varejao went down, and can knock down mid-range shots well enough to be a fourth or fifth contributor on a contender.

And while the Cavs drafted Anthony Bennett as a 3-4 hybrid, he'll be in the mix next season and taking pressure off of others as well.

You can even add Tyler Zeller to the mix if you want. I wouldn't. But if you're being nice or are Tyler Zeller's mother or something, his name could get mentioned. 

Having that depth on the front line will allow Bynum to come along at his pace and get relatively limited minutes once he's back to 100 percent. If there's anything we've learned from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich—and we should have learned a ton by now—it's that adding minute caps to players can greatly extend their longevity. Bynum isn't Tim Duncan's age, but he might as well be with the way his knees are constructed.

Regaining explosiveness in limited minutes could lead Cleveland to pick up Bynum's option for next season or give another team enough faith to give him a multi-year contract in 2014. 

Meanwhile, every possible result is gravy for Cleveland. If Bynum returns to his 2011-12 form, the Cavaliers are probably a top-five seed in a depleted Eastern Conference. They will have found a franchise-level center on the cheap, perhaps the greatest commodity a team can have post-rookie contracts. 

On the other hand, Bynum on the roster gives the Cavs a scapegoat should things go sour next season. This is more important than anyone realizes. Cleveland has made no bones about its push for a playoff berth next season, ostensibly to make itself look like a prime destination for a LeBron James return.

Making the postseason was the impetus on the Jarrett Jack signing, as it was for landing Bynum. But before the Bynum signing, if Cleveland failed to make the playoffs, the onus would have fallen on Chris Grant, or coach Mike Brown, or even superstar guard Kyrie Irving.

Grant could have been criticized for his questionable draft choices, Brown for his continued lack of offensive innovation and Irving for still being a poor defender three years into his NBA career. (I'm assuming these criticisms.)

All of that essentially goes away with Bynum in the fold. If he's hurt for the entire season and Cleveland makes a solid run but finishes in the lottery again, it's the plucky team that would have been pushed over the top had its franchise center stayed healthy. No matter how the poor result comes about, Bynum will take the brunt of the spotlight—even if it's not totally fair.

But perception is reality in the NBA. For now, the perception is that Cleveland is taking a massive risk on an unreliable talent. The reality, though, was this was a perfect marriage from jump—one that has the potential to help the Cavaliers' present and future.

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