One year ago, the Philadelphia 76ers—seeking Eastern Conference contention on the heels of a bright, young point guard and an up-and-coming wing out of The Ohio State University—made a trade. One part of a four-team deal, the Sixers packaged two first-round draft picks with All-Star forward Andre Iguodala, center Nikola Vučević and swingman Maurice Harkless. In return, they would receive a 24-year-old center who could potentially change the franchise’s fortunes by the name of Andrew Bynum.
One year ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers front office was looking over their payroll, wondering just what they would get in return for their investment. In addition to those players who were going to be a big part of the team’s future—budding superstar Kyrie Irving, for instance—Cavs majority owner Dan Gilbert was going to be cutting sizable checks made payable to names like Baron Davis, Kelenna Azubuike, and Luke Harangody, totaling to roughly $15 million. Additional checks were cut to shooting guard Daniel Gibson ($4.7 million) and forward Luke Walton ($6.1 million). The Cavaliers pondered a deal that would bring Bynum to Cleveland, helping facilitate a deal that would send the highly-coveted Dwight Howard from Orlando to Los Angeles, but there was concern over the health of Bynum’s knees. With the Cavs in asset-collection mode, sending multiple first-round draft selections for potential was not a risk team general manager Chris Grant was willing to take.
When it was all said and done, point guards Davis and Josh Selby, acquired in a mid-year deal with Memphis, didn’t even see the Cavs’ locker room; Azubuike barely made it past media day despite having an optimistic outlook on his future; and Harangody didn’t make it to December. None of them would appear in a contest. Gibson would fight injuries of various types and degrees all season long; Walton, a locker room leader, had several solid games off of the bench, but could only do so much. The Cavaliers won just 24 games in an up-and-down1 season. The return on the investment from a summer earlier was, well, not very good. But in a vacuum, the return was at least better than what it would have been had they pulled a similar trigger to that of the Sixers as Bynum would play in nary a game and would suit up for just one practice. The players and picks were long gone and the center was staring directly at unrestricted free agency.
With his value firmly suppressed due to ailing knees and the occasional run in with the knucklehead stick, Bynum, a former All-Star center who once pulled down 30 rebounds in a contest against one of the league’s best teams, was looking for a suitor. Once it came down to NBA teams who were in need of a center and could also commit funds in a CBA-strapped environment, Cleveland was one of three teams to present an offer. The Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks, both perennial playoff teams over the last several seasons, coveted the big man, but could only offer market demographics and nightlife and recent history. A wake-up call to be sure, Bynum was faced with the reality that his knees and his quesionable behavior had done considerable damage and it was up to him to repair his value. The Cavaliers could offer an All-Star point guard, a coach with whom he is already familiar, and the chance to make cosiderably more money in the event that he sees the floor.
No first-round picks, no All-Star players and no budding, 22-year-old centers who would go on to average 13 points and 12 rebounds per game were needed. For just $6 million in guarateed money—less than Luke Walton; less than half of what was paid to Davis, Selby, Harangody and Azubuike—the Cleveland Cavaliers signed Bynum, signaling not only the team’s desire to win, but that all of the waiting, all of the asset collecting and all of the otherwise baseless banter about Cleveland and free agency2 all came to a front. In today’s NBA, $6 million often doesn’t amount to much. On a day when the Los Angeles Clippers introduced the left coast media to Ryan Hollins, the Cavaliers spent Luke Walton money on a player who could ultimately provide the city of Cleveland with their best center since Brad Daugherty, and a player who could ultimately be one of the best centers in the Eastern Conference3 to pair with one of the best point guards in the NBA.
Chris Grant has made a career out of signing players to team-friendly deals. His unwillingness to hand over assets leading up to draft night may rub opposing general managers the wrong way. His unwillingness to give players all of the leverage in negotiations may not sit well with representation and inherent entourages. But as the years pile up, nothing has been the mark of Grant more than the words “team option,” effectively sharing the risk of an investment with the hopes of eventual reward.
Sure, there is a chance that Cleveland experiences similar fallout to that of the Sixers one year ago—injuries, the crazy-hair sideshow, missed playoffs. But the deal agreed to by Bynum and the Cavaliers, like many before it, offer essentially no downside. Grant’s issue, if he has any, is the apparent hope that is clung to on the mark of upside. He traded for a well-over-the-hill point guard in Davis with the hope that an unprotected lottery pick would net him one of the best point guards to ever wear a Cavaliers jersey. He dealt Jon Leuer with the hope that he receives another first-round pick; the production provided by the now-departed players—guard Wayne Ellington and forward/center Marreesse Speights—was just a bonus. CJ Miles? Team option. Leon Powe? Team option. Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Tyler Zeller? All impending team options. The flexibility that Grant has provided himself to this point, while not exactly amounting to much in terms of present-day wins, has been nothing short of exceptional.
The old adage states that the best-case scenario for a free agent signing is that he4 lives up to expectations; that he produces to the level required by his recently inked contract. Last season, Houston signed center Omer Asik to a $25 million deal. Tiago Spilliter just signed a $36 million deal with the San Antonio Spurs despite averaging roughly half of what Bynum did in 2011-12 in terms of points and rebounds per game. Nikola Pekovic, a player in whom the Cavaliers had interest, is setting up to sign a four-year, $50 million deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
In the case of Bynum’s deal, a guaranteed $6 million5 with performance-based incentives and a second-year team option, is the black swan of recent contractual agreements in that it offers essentially zero downside. If Bynum suits up for less than half of the season, the Cavs are out $6 million there is a solid chance that the Cavaliers are looking at another lottery appearance. If you haven’t heard, the 2014 NBA Draft is shaping up to be a fairly good one. If the Cavaliers let Bynum walk based on what would be irreparable knees, their salary cap flexibility remains for 2014 and beyond and the desire to win is still apparent given the risks taken this past offseason. Sure, the Cavaliers could have added a 35-year-old Elton Brand; he may have been a safer route. Andrei Kirilenko, 32, was an option, but his cost may have been higher and he hasn’t exactly been a poster boy for indestructible players6.
t the end of the day, the Cleveland Cavaliers signed a marquee free agent. Sure, this free agent isn’t exactly at peak market value for a variety of reasons, but it is here where we can let the cynics wrestle with the straw men7. Who was the last player of this caliber to choose Cleveland? Juan Gonzalez? The player, though riddled with question marks, has a chance to show the other 29 teams who did not give him a chance that they made a huge mistake. Twenty-five-year-old seven-footers aren’t exactly easy to come by; productive ones are even more rare, and those on a $6 million deal are legitimately unheard of.
We don’t know for sure what offers, if any were made by other franchises. Teams aren’t exactly going to leak information when they’re on the losing end of a pitch.8. But in Cleveland, after Bynum poked and prodded by the team physicians, Mike Brown was a huge part of the sales pitch. Kyrie Irving joined the thousands of Cavalier fans on Twitter to show his excitement, adding multiple exclamation points for good measure. People, for what amounts to a litany of potential reasons, want to play in Cleveland. The Cavaliers, in turn, show that they want to win, and win now, regardless of the gamble. Sure, it hasn’t been the smoothest of roads; it cost the team’s head coach from the last three seasons his job. But it shows that Chris Grant, for all of the predispositions that some may have against him—for his “surprise” draft picks, for his canned, clichéd responses to essentially every media inquiry—is making smart, calculated decisions that amount to building his Cavaliers team to compete, eventually, with the best of the NBA.
Last season, while the Philadelphia 76ers were hoping that their investment would yield anything, the Cavaliers spent most of their season losing games, but did so in a considerably less-costly fashion. Rookie center Tyler Zeller was the starting center for many of those losses, getting pushed around by bigger bodies, learning the ropes of the NBA in a “trial by fire” fashion. Come October, Zeller—thanks to health, drafting and free agency—could enter the season as the fifth big man in the Cavaliers’ rotation. The avaerage age of the current expected roatation of this Cavaliers team: 24. The number of guaranteed contracts for 2014-15: 39. Let that all soak in.
Sometimes, the best trades are the ones you don’t make. And sometimes, the waiting—regardless of how painful—is worth it in the end. Andrew Bynum may never swap his dress shoes for high-tops while under contract with the Cavaliers. If that happens, the Cavaliers, and their fans, will not be negatively impacted in any way. But if the knees check out, if being right next to The Cleveland Clinic bears fruit, well, the Cavaliers will take the floor with one of the best point guard-center combinations in all of the Association. What’s not to like?