The Indiana Pacers signed Andrew Bynum on Saturday. Team president Larry Bird swears that they didn't do it just to ensure that nobody else — like, say, the Eastern Conference-rival Miami Heat — could sign Andrew Bynum. From Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star:
"I heard that but we don't do that," Bird said. "We don't have the money to throw around to bring guys in and let them sit on our bench just because somebody else wants them. I don't know who came up with that but that's about the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
OK, fair enough. So ... um ... why did you sign him, then?
Bird trumpeted Bynum as a "skilled big man" who brings the Pacers "added size" and "championship experience" in the press release announcing the signing. All of those things are true. Bynum is very big, listed at 7 feet tall and 285 pounds. He owns two championship rings from his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he was one of the league's most gifted low-post scorers when operating from the block in L.A. That was then, though.
With a couple of exceptions, the Bynum who took the court with the Cleveland Cavaliers before things fell apart in December, precipitating his trade to and subsequent release by the Chicago Bulls, scarcely resembled the dominant offensive player who averaged just under 19 points and 12 rebounds per game at age 24 during his final season with the Lakers. The notion that, as Star columnist Bob Kravtiz wrote, this signing makes "Indiana the favorite to come out of the East and reach the NBA Finals" (which feels increasingly true irrespective of any midseason waiver-wire additions) seems born out of an out-of-date understanding of what Bynum brings to the table at age 26 after all those knee injuries.
During Bynum's last three years in L.A., he shot 46.7 percent in the post and averaged right around 0.9 points per post-up possession used, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data. Those aren't jaw-dropping numbers in terms of efficiency — Bynum finished 51st, 67th and 50th in the NBA, respectively, in points per post-up possession during those three seasons — but they're still quite good, and made him one of the league's most dangerous complementary options alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. After missing the entire 2012-13 season with multiple knee injuries and signing with the Cavs this past summer, though, Bynum's low-post game looked awful rusty and largely ineffective. He shot just 38 percent (46 for 121) on post-ups for Cleveland and averaged only 0.75 points per post-up, turning his former bread-and-butter into one of the more inefficient plays an already scuffling Cavaliers offense could muster.
Here's something Cavs fans saw a fair amount of in Bynum's 24 games in wine and gold:
During the first quarter of Cleveland's Dec. 17 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, Bynum sets up shop in his favorite spot, the left block, against Blazers center Robin Lopez, a stout post defender. He dribbles a couple of times and feels Lopez cutting off his right hand and preventing him from making a further entry into the middle of the lane, so he reverses course, drop-steps toward the baseline and puts up a lefty half-hook. He misses, and Portland rebounds.
When you go back and re-watch Bynum's post-ups with the Cavs, you see this a lot. The drop-step was there, and he could execute it well enough to get himself good looks on the interior, but his touch (especially with the left hand) just wasn't there on a consistent enough basis to cash in on them. There were pockets of rhythm, but they were fleeting; the kinds of baskets on which he feasted in L.A. became ones he just couldn't regularly hit in Cleveland, as all those leg injuries and all that time on the shelf manifested themselves in a litany of front-rimmed hooks and all-arm push shots that betrayed his lack of lift.
Bynum also often had trouble anchoring in the post and holding his ground, resulting in either getting pushed a bit further off the block than he'd like before the catch or, as was the case on this hook defended by Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons, finding himself fading further away from the basket as he elevated, leading to another front-rimmed miss:
Even after he'd knocked off some of the early-season rust and gotten more comfortable with his footwork, Bynum struggled at times to translate his post moves into anything meaningful, as was the case in this going-nowhere possession against Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls:
His struggle to put defenses in compromising positions by winning one-on-one battles on the block also led to a sharp reduction in fouls drawn — only 6.8 percent of Bynum's Cleveland post-ups resulted in shooting fouls, according to Synergy, down from better than 11 percent during his last two years with the Lakers.
Despite the clear size advantage he held over his defender most nights, Bynum's inability to find a shot-making rhythm meant opponents didn't often have to send help to disarm him. When they did, though, his long-time issues with handling double-teams cropped up, as a combination of poor feel for the double, insufficient quickness/handle to move away from the pressure and an inability to pick out the right place to move the ball led to cough-ups like this one against the Heat:
Before his suspension on Dec. 28, Bynum had played 480 minutes for Cleveland. During those minutes, the Cavs were outscored by an average of 11.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's lineup data, and most of the damage was done on the offensive end. The Cavaliers scored at a 93 points-per-100 clip with Bynum on the floor, an offensive rating that would rank far, far beneath the Milwaukee Bucks' league-worst unit over the course of the full season. Granted, Ian Mahinmi isn't exactly a fantastic offensive player himself, but if the Pacers are hoping Bynum provides a significant offensive upgrade over their current backup center, they might wind up sorely disappointed.
That said, there's also an at-first-blush curious sense that Bynum's addition could pay dividends on the other end of the floor, according to Buckner:
The Pacers also are banking on Bynum's defense as the anchor of the second unit. At the start of December, the Cavaliers won four of five games and from the perspective of the Pacers, they could have been most impressed by Bynum's presence in the Cavs' 109-94 victory over the New York Knicks.
Though Bynum scored only three points during his 24 minutes on the court, his size dissuaded the normally aggressive Carmelo Anthony from driving to the rim. The Cleveland defense turned Anthony into a jump shooter that night as he attempted only two of his 19 shots inside the paint.
"The game changes when you have to attack somebody with that size," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, "and you have to account for him when he's on offense. I feel like he's a difference maker, that's why he's here."
There's some logic to this. Indiana's best-in-the-world defense is built around keeping a mammoth center in the middle of the lane to deter penetration and make life difficult on shooters near the rim; the Pacers' bigs do have to move some, of course, but the system requires far less kinetic play from 7-footers than, say, the Heat's predilection toward blitzing pick-and-rolls or the hard-hedge-heavy approach to defending ball-handlers off screens that Mike Brown prefers in Cleveland.
That would seem like a better systemic fit for Bynum, who doesn't move well laterally and doesn't move quickly, but who can act as a legitimate impediment at the cup. Cleveland opponents shot just 37.6 percent when both they and Bynum were within five feet of the rim, the second-best defensive-impact mark of any big to play at least 15 games and average at least 15 minutes per contest, according to the NBA's SportVU player tracking data.
That said, Mahinmi's no slouch in that department himself; opponents are only shooting 43 percent on up-close attempts when he's in the vicinity, and the Indy D has been virtually just as stingy with him out there (allowing 94.2 points-per-100, with opponents shooting 42.2 percent from the field) as with Roy Hibbert on the floor (93-per-100, 40.9 percent). Plus, Bynum's lack of mobility can prove costly outside the context of half-court sets. Cleveland gave up 7.1 more fast-break points per 48 minutes of Bynum floor time than they did with him sitting, which would seem like a bad match for a Pacers team that prides itself on shutting off opponents' running games — Indy's allowed the third-fewest fast-break points per game this year, according to NBA.com, and ranks 10th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per transition possession used, per Synergy.
Maybe the presence of multiple elite defenders committed to floor balance will mitigate that danger, and maybe a system that funnels drivers right into a 7-foot wall is just what the doctor ordered for Bynum to rehabilitate his rim-protecting reputation. Maybe more time to practice and knock off the rust will restore Bynum's touch on the block, and maybe a locker room full of committed veterans will be strong enough to extract maximum effort out of Bynum while filtering out any residual B.S. Maybe Bynum sets the world aflame after joining the team this week and inspires Bird to shop Mahinmi before the Feb. 20 trade deadline in the interest of creating some salary-cap space that could prove useful in an attempt to keep Lance Stephenson in the fold this summer.
That's a lot of "maybes," though, as All-Star small forward Paul George noted after the signing was announced, according to Buckner:
"You can't pass up on a huge talent like that and I expect him to be able to help us if he comes in with an attitude to buy into our program," George said [...]
"He'll have to prove a lot to himself, whether he wants to play or not. If he comes in ready to go, ready to put in the work, really buying into our program, we have no problem being there for him."
George concluded: "But with him, it's 'ifs' because he's been through so many programs in the early stage [of his career]. Whether he wants to stay committed to us is ... a big gamble on our behalf."
Given the reported $1 million price tag, it's not that big a gamble. Given what Bynum looked like earlier in the season and how much Bynum's talent seemed to have dissipated, though, there might not be very much reward on the other side of that minimal risk.
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