Andrew Bynum's Surprising Return Means Everything to the Cleveland Cavaliers

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 31, 2013

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 30:  Andrew Bynum #21 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks up at the scoreboard during a break in the action against the Brooklyn Nets at The Quicken Loans Arena on October 30, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers are a sneaky bunch.

Hours before tipoff against the Brooklyn Nets, it seemed as though Andrew Bynum was nowhere near ready to return. 

According to Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer, head coach Mike Brown said "Nothing has changed from an injury standpoint. As of right now, he has not been cleared to play." At that point—and remember, this was just hours before game time—Bynum was going to be nothing more than a spectator.

Cue the record scratch.


Center of Attention

Per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, Bynum got medical clearance at the 11th hour, allowing him to play in his first NBA game since May 21, 2012.

Bynum didn't start the game, but there was an audible murmur when he walked (no, he didn't limp) to the scorer's table with 3:40 left in the first quarter. The noise quickly became a roar when he stepped onto the court.

The big man played just eight minutes overall, but he showed flashes of exactly what the Cavs hope he'll give them in greater quantity as the year progresses. He ran the floor surprisingly well, turned away a pair of shots and grabbed three boards.

He even finished a three-point play in the second period.

Overall, the Cavs have to be happy about notching an impressive 98-94 victory over the visiting Brooklyn Nets despite a rough shooting night (4-of-16) for Kyrie Irving. But they must be positively ecstatic about Bynum's surprising and impressive return.

I mean, Irving was so excited that he briefly became a member of the media in an effort to get closer to his newly activated teammate.

Rest assured that Bynum will soon learn that it's best not to ignore the man who'll be feeding him entry passes.


Moving Forward

Coming into the season, Cleveland was one of the most difficult teams to project. The roster was comprised of unproven lottery picks, a potential superstar in Irving, who had missed significant chunks of his first two seasons with injury, and a pair of big men with major health issues of their own.

Anderson Varejao lost most of the 2012-13 campaign with a blood clot, but he figured to return to full strength. Bynum's fate was far less clear.

After a lost season marked by ill-conceived hairstyles, dubious bowling expeditions and setbacks upon setbacks, the Cavs couldn't possibly have known what they were getting when they signed the center to a heavily incentivized deal.

INDEPENDENCE, OH - JULY 19:  Andrew Bynum holds up his new jersey as he is introduced as a new addition to the Cleveland Cavaliers alongside general manager Chris Grant at The Cleveland Clinic Courts on July 19, 2013 in Independence, Ohio in Cleveland, Oh
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Frankly, they still can't be sure. But what happened against the Nets can only be construed as a positive.

It sounds insulting to say so, but Bynum's return to the court was the first thing he's done in more than a year that wasn't an abject disappointment. More than that, though, it may have elevated the Cavs' ceiling from that of a fringe playoff team to a squad capable of not only getting into the postseason dance, but making some major noise when they arrive.

The Eastern Conference is loaded with frontcourt talent. Aside from the unusually constructed Miami Heat, just about every team with a chance to compete has a bruising front line.

May 6, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Chicago Bulls power forward Taj Gibson (right) greets teammate center Joakim Noah (left) during their game against the Miami Heat in game one of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. The Bulls w
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson man the middle for the Chicago Bulls. The Indiana Pacers have Roy Hibbert and David West. In Brooklyn, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez hold down the lane.

Hell, even the Milwaukee Bucks have Larry Sanders and John Henson.

It's far too early to guess at who Cleveland might face in a hypothetical playoff series. In fact, it's also too early to assume the Cavs even get to the playoffs in the first place.

But Bynum should improve their chances of making the postseason. And once the Cavs get there, he helps put them on equal footing in a conference full of 7-footers.


Still on Guard

It's probably unwise to assume that just because the snakebit big man managed to come back sooner than expected, the Cavaliers are a problem-free club. Given the likelihood of a significant minutes restriction, it's unclear how much Bynum will be able to help the Cavs over the course of the season.

Right now, his value is largely symbolic.

But that's more value than he's had in a while, and for a Cavaliers franchise that is dead set on making a major jump this season, every little bit helps.

For his part, Bynum was excited to be back. But even he admitted that there's still a long journey ahead.

He took the first step before anyone expected, and that could wind up making all the difference in the world for the Cavs.


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