The first time I saw Andrew Bynum up close was an exact replication of the way a small child runs into an adult’s legs and slowly raises their eye level until they can get a full glimpse of the substantually larger human who’s standing before them. It was this past October at Cleveland Clinic Courts, the pristine practice facility which was nestled behind all of the early-autumn foliage, as the entire Cleveland Cavaliers roster was fielding inquiries—both forward-looking and retrospective—during their annual Media Day. Bynum had just arrived in Independence having flown in from Los Angeles. He spoke in a Shaq-like baritone, but with considerably more reticence. I considered taking a selfie with the gargantuan Bynum photo-bombing the background, but the angle it required—due to the substantial height difference between the two of us1—led to the flourescent bulbs overhead ruining the shot. A mountain of a human being, a member of the team’s communications staff, stopping just short of pulling out a step ladder, outfitted the 25-year-old with a clip-on microphone and merely sent him on his way.
Bynum’s introduction to the city of Cleveland was very similar. While there was a press conference, there were no stages or highlight reels. There were no tunnels comprised of local children. This was the same day that Kyrie Irving, the team’s point guard, stated that he planned to use this year, his third season in the NBA, to propel himself to the tops of the NBA ranks. It was a day where CJ Miles, Irving’s teammate, said that the point guard could very well accomplish such a task if he put in the required work. It was also a day where Jarrett Jack, the team’s other big free agent addition, damned anyone who set their sites on just making the playoffs.
“Why can’t we just go to the championship? If that’s not your goal, we should just go home right now,” said Jack. “Who cares if you got the free T-shirt they hand out for the first round? So what? No one remembers that. If you take a test, why would you try to get a 72? Why wouldn’t you try to get a 100? Who wants to be in fifth place?”
Despite all of the good feelings and uplifting quotes, there was an aura of skepticism surrounding Bynum. The center, as well as the team’s general manager Chris Grant, had made it very aware that there was a plan in place. With the Cleveland Clinic in the team’s back yard, the training staff and the medical minds on hand would carve out a regiment which would hopefully get Bynum, a player who had missed all of last season due to knee injuries, back as soon as possible. Their sights were set on the start of the regular season, but there were murmurs that the team would be fortunate to have Bynum play in the second half of the season if at all—he showed up to Cleveland north of 300 pounds, had not played basketball in a year and there were question marks surrounding his motivation. “I’m in a different place,” said Bynum of his improved mindset surrounding his injury. He moved to Cleveland. He was ready to work.
Alas, when Opening Night drew closer, the team remained as tight-lipped as ever. Was it possible that a guy who showed little in the way of desire to play a season ago would have actually done the requisite work needed to get his bulky knees in working order by the start of the regular season? It would be on that very night where Bynum would be seen on the floor, taking warm-up shots before the game. Morale was once again high. He was officially listed as active as the Cavaliers were set on a voyage that would hopefully result in their first playoff appearance in four years. Quicken Loans Arena would erupt with 3:40 left in the first quarter when he would draw his first minutes of playing time as a member of the Wine and Gold, his first game in nearly 18 months. He would finish with three points, three rebounds and two blocked shots in eight minutes of play.
A little over 30 games into the regular season and it’s clear that the Bynum experiment—easily one of the biggest stories of Cleveland sports in 2013—was one that simply did not work. The Cavaliers were one of the few teams in the NBA with a legitimate center in their starting five. The offense was to run through the post and the guards and wings would be free to move about the floor as the defense would coverge on the 7-footer. Issues began to arise when the team, not having Bynum during the preseason or during may practices leading up to the actual 82-game slate, had issues getting the ball to the post. Geometry proved to be a bit of a burden as this exercise would lead to the ball being passed out of bounds, Bynum being fed the ball out of position, or just an all-around mess that typically resulted in the Cavaliers’ opponents running in the other direction and registering an easy two points.
To listen to Mike Brown tell it, the team simply needed time to gel. Bynum, after all, was still getting his feet wet; the Cavaliers, after all, were in the process of learning how to play with a “true” center under the watch of a brand new head coach. While Bynum’s weight would be down and his knee appeared to be in playing shape, the part of the equation that involved motivation never seemed to fully shake out. The losses began to pile up and a malaise appeared to set in. In the rare occasions that the Cavaliers would find themselves in the midst of a close game, Bynum began seeing fewer and fewer fourth-quarter minutes. During a recent blowout loss to the Detroit Pistons, Bynum shot 0-for-11 from the floor. Not long thereafter, in an overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks, Bynum was removed from the game in the third quarter and would not remove his warm-ups from that point on.
While the details remain murky2, it appears that the bottom of Bynum’s relationship with his teammates and coaching staff would bottom out in a Friday afternoon practice where the center would go on to take wild shots and show a complete lack of interest in being inside of the very building in which he trained six days per week heading into the season. Bynum would be suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team,” a nebulous term that allows the Cavaliers to claim confidentiality and he would not be seen again, even in Fathead form3 It was this very moment where Bynum’s contract, one that was constructed like none other in the NBA due to its multiple layers of guaranteed compensation, became the silver lining in an experiment that would have blown up in the city’s collective faces if not for the added protection.
Chris Grant is a bespectacled man, but when he inked Bynum to a deal back in July, he had on his safety goggles.
Always the diplomat, Grant took to The Courts on what will be the coldest day in Cleveland in some 20 years, and referred to Bynum as “great.” While Grant was understandably there to address the team’s newest addition, an All-Star small forward who will immediately add impact at both ends of the floor at a position of weakness, there was no denying the 300-pound elephant who was no longer in the room. Grant, despite the way things ended, appeared grateful for the work Andrew Bynum was willing to put in this summer in order to not only get down to playing weight, but to provide the team with a post presence that allowed them to rest Anderson Varejao and take the load off of Kyrie Irving. When I asked him to give the Bynum signing a grade, knowing full well that there are more nuances to the signing than can be attributed to a single letter, Grant would simply state that the team was fortunate to have been able to turn a gamble into an opportunity. Everything about the contract that he constructed—the timing, the terms and the dollar amount—seem to have worked in his team’s favor. Sure, it created what essentially became two trade deadlines, but if not for the $12 million price tag, the Cavaliers would have been forced to either eat more money or include additional pieces into a potential deal.
“I don’t think anything went wrong,” said Grant of his time with Bynum. “I think we’re very lucky to have signed and negotiated at that level in a long time which created us this opportunity today, a month and a half before the trade deadline. For us, I’d say it worked out well.”
Andrew Bynum was supposed to be the wild card. He was the player who many used as the variable, the guy who—if stars aligned—would help propel the Cavaliers into the postseason. Now, that wildcard becomes the player for whom Bynum was dealt. As of the day of this deadline deal, the Cavs sit three games back of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Of their last seven losses, five have been by five points or fewer. While the hopes and dreams involved an All-Star point guard feeding the ball to an All-Star center, the Wine and Gold will have to settle for an All-Star small forward instead. Whether or not this is finally the move that gets the Cavs back in the playoffs remains to be seen.
The last time I saw Bynum, all seven feet of him lumbered out of the Cavaliers’ locker room with a pair of white Beats by Dre headphones draped over his ears, the music blaring almost as if the speakers were on the outside of the headset. “I think you’re doing it wrong,” one member of the team would say. I can’t recall exactly what song was playing, but bass levels were unmistakable. The $12 million man left the room and would never be seen again. It wasn’t until days later when I realized that I should’ve taken that selfie when I had the chance. I’ll gladly accept a shot at the postseason as a viable consolation.
(Image via Scott Sargent/WFNY)