Why Nobody Should Be Sleeping on Kyrie Irving-Andrew Bynum Combo

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2013

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 19:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on against the New Jersey Nets at Prudential Center on March 19, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
Chris Chambers/Getty Images

When it comes to Andrew Bynum, many of us are conditioned to hit the snooze button.

And can you blame us? His first six years in the NBA were spent waffling between deliberate lethargy and recurring injuries with the Los Angeles Lakers. The supposed superstar-in-the-making was more a revolving enigma than he was an exceptional sidekick to Kobe Bryant.

Then 2011-12 happened. Bynum made his first All-Star appearance while averaging a career high 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. Los Angeles was bounced in the second round of the playoffs, but it didn't matter; Bynum had arrived.

Almost as soon as he came, he went. Whether the Lakers foresaw what was about to come next or were really that enamored with Dwight Howard remains to be seen. Really, it doesn't matter. They flipped Bynum for Superman, and that was that. Bynum was a member of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Portrayed as the Sixers' savior, he flopped, sitting out the entire season. No longer headed for a nine-figure payday, Bynum signed a two-year partially guaranteed contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers during free agency. Now he'll headline a playoff hopeful next to a rising young stud in Kyrie Irving.

Expectations have since risen in Cleveland, but they haven't skyrocketed. Cautiously optimistic—that's how I'd describe the scene. Bynum has compiled too lengthy a health bill to ignore, so skepticism is just as present as any idealism.

It won't always be that way, though. Before long it will become clear that the good outweighs the bad, that the return outweighs the risk.

That sleeping on this pairing would be the real mistake.

Bynum Might Actually Be Healthy...and Engaged

Updates on Bynum's health have become something of a novelty.

Progress is reported, we get our hopes up, realize we shouldn't have gotten our hopes up and then dismiss his latest breakthrough as a steaming pile of crap.

But things have changed since his arrival in Cleveland.

While talking with Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Plain Dealer, Bynum expressed hope that he could be ready to play soon:

It's a fluid process. I have no idea what the schedule's going to be for me. But I'm doing everything I can to be ready. I think with the program that has been made up, we have a good chance.

I'm optimistic I'm where I should be. Obviously, I want to be playing. But I'm taking baby steps, doing what the team and the doctors tell me. I'm doing my part. I come to work every day. I'm moving in the right direction.

Same schtick, different city, am I right? If I actually believed that, I wouldn't be.

Something's different about his personal assessment. He's not promising anything like he did in Philly. Specific timetables aren't being given. He's genuinely optimistic but equally uncertain about what's next, almost like we should believe him this time.

Reading between the lines, however, can be difficult, often leaving us to search for what isn't there. Self-spoken evaluations mean little when the player in question has strung us along for the better part of his career, which is why I'm more concerned with what the organization has to say.

"We've been very impressed with Andrew's work ethic and diligence in this process,'' general manager Chris Grant said to Boyer. "He's doing everything possible to get back on the court as quickly as he can.''

When's the last time you read the words "impressed," "Andrew" and "diligence" in the same sentence, when it's not pertaining to dancing in Madrid, tearing up the bowling alley or planning his next jaunt into the barber shop?

The gravity of his situation appears to have resonated with Bynum in ways it never did with the Lakers or Sixers. His work ethic has never been the source of praise. To know that he's trying to do this right is encouraging, more than any of his previous recoveries have ever been.

A determined Bynum is something we have yet to see. If this newly discovered assiduity results in a healthy big man, the Cavs have a second superstar on their hands.

An Inside Scoring Option

In Bynum, Irving has an offensively talented big. Finally.

Through his first two years, Irving hasn't been complemented by a proven interior scorer. Anderson Varejao is a double-double machine, but he's not a No. 2. Dion Waiters and Antawn Jamison have been the second options over the last two seasons; Varejao was more like the third or fourth, if that.

For all his underachieving, Bynum has always been a low-post threat when healthy. His career average of 11.7 points per game isn't overwhelming, but it comfortably exceeds Varejao's 7.7. And his career high of 18.7 easily beats out Sideshow Bob's 14.1.

In Los Angeles, Bynum was the second-leading scorer on a Western Conference playoff team (2011-12). Varejao has never been second-in-command, and the five playoff appearances he made all came in years he notched fewer than nine points a night and were courtesy of LeBron James.

More importantly, Bynum is more self-sustaining on the offensive end. Like most big men, he's reliant on playmakers to create shots for him, but he's not as dependent on others as Varejao.

Last season, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), just 3.7 percent of Varejao's offensive touches came in post-up situations, and he shot just 11.1 percent off them. Granted, he appeared in only 25 games last year, but 3.7 percent is still a ridiculously low rate.

By comparison, 56.4 percent of Bynum's touches came in post-ups during 2011-12, and he connected on 46.2 percent of his shot attempts.

Even more telling is the number of made baskets that have come off assists for each. Per HoopData.com, the average number of successful shots that came off assists last season was 60.6 percent. True to big-man form, both behemoths have spent a large chunk of their careers surpassing that benchmark. 

Below is a breakdown for each:

Nearly 10 percent more of Varejao's conversions have come off assists than Bynum. That puts more pressure on Irving. Since Varejao isn't prone to creating his own shots, it's on the point guard.

Bynum stands to lighten that load considerably. And he makes Cleveland's offense less predictable, allowing Irving to dump the rock off down low more than if he were playing exclusively with Varejao. 

Adding more consistent scoring in the post will be huge for a Cavs team lusting after its first playoff appearance in four years.

Pick-and-Roll, Pick-and-Roll, Pick-and-Roll

To be honest, I'm surprised Irving had as much success within the pick-and-roll last season as he did.

Not only is Varejao far from the ideal trailer—putting even more responsibility on the ball-handler—he missed 57 games in 2012-13. Somehow, the Cavs' ball-handlers ranked 13th in points scored per possession (0.78) within such sets, per Synergy.

That being said, there is so much room for improvement it's not even funny.

Cleveland's roll men ranked 26th in points per possession (0.89) last year, alarmingly low when you consider it houses a talented facilitator like Irving. The point man himself was underwhelming, finishing 68th in points per possession as a ball-handler (0.81).

Since Irving is constantly compared to Chris Paul, let's go ahead and compare him to Chris Paul.

Here's how the two point guards and their teams stack up against one another:

The Los Angeles Clippers and Paul were markedly better within the pick-and-roll than Irving and the Cavs, which doesn't come as a shock. Irving isn't surrounded by the kind of finishers Paul is. Varejao is neither Blake Griffin nor DeAndre Jordan. Wild Thing averaged 1.02 points per possession as the roll man last season, while Griffin and Jordan came in at 1.2 and 1.42, respectively.

Sans Varejao, forget it. Irving didn't have viable PnR threats to run with. Not any who could barrel inside, anyway.

Look at what happens when Luke Walton sets a screen for Irving here:

Walton rolls toward the three-point line, which is cool, except for the fact he's shot under 33 percent from deep for his career.

Tyler Zeller, meanwhile, is at a standstill in the corner. When the Washington Wizards decide to trap Irving, he still doesn't move:

What's a point guard have to do to get a little urgency out of his bigs? In this case, he must escape the double-team. Only when he breaks free does Zeller slither inside:

Too much work is being done on Irving's part there.

Same here:

Varejao sets the screen, great. Irving draws the double-team, so even better:

Varejao has a relatively clear path to the basket now. Instead of using it to his advantage, he sits just inside the arc watching Irving dribble his way into traffic:

Time ticks off the clock, defenders converge on Irving, and still, he sits:

Irving eventually busts through and kicks it out to Varejao, who's wide open because he shot just 36.8 percent outside of nine feet last season:

I honestly don't care that he made it in this scenario because the play took too long to develop and he passed up an opportunity to cut toward the basket in favor of a long two, the most inefficient shot in basketball.

Alongside Bynum, pick-and-rolls can look a little something like they did between him and Pau Gasol.

To answer your question, no, I don't have any qualms about using Gasol for reference. His court vision exceeds that of some point guards.

For example, Gasol receives the ball just inside the arc here:

Where most big men would immediately look to pass courtesy of a clumsy handle and lack of range, Gasol starts to dribble toward Bynum:

Defenses have to respect this play because of Gasol's inside-out touch. In theory, that makes it even easier to run with Irving, whose outside touch extends far beyond Gasol's.

Bynum inevitably rolls toward the rim:

No gimmicks, no idleness—just rolling.

The result speaks for itself:

Together, Bynum and Irving should be able to run plays like these, the kind Cleveland's point man couldn't run as frequently before. The kind Paul has made a living off running.

The same kind that will make the Cavs that much harder to guard.

A Reason to Pass

Double-teams flock toward Bynum. When you're a 7-footer who tips the scale at well over 250 pounds, that's just how it is.

See for yourself here:

Or here:

Over here too:

The thing about double-teams is that if there are are two players on you, somebody has to be open. On occasion, that somebody will be Irving. 

And wouldn't you know it, Irving drained 47.1 percent of his spot-up threes last year, per Synergy. Think of the possibilities. 

To be sure, Bynum hasn't made a name for himself as playmaker. His 1.2 career assists per game don't even do his double-team struggles justice.

Faced with multiple defenders on his six and 12 (o'clock), he hasn't been able kick the ball out consistently, no matter how open his teammates are. Then again, he's never played with Irving, a deadly shooter who should compel Bynum to spread the wealth.

Should Bynum finally see the benefits of double-team kick-outs, then hot damn, the Cavs will border on impossible to defend and a postseason berth will be well within reach.


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