NBA Free Agency: Andrew Bynum signs with Cavaliers and brings excitement to Cleveland

The Chris Quinn era in Cleveland appears that it may be over before it ever got started. But I’m sure the Cavaliers and their fans won’t lose a lot of sleep over cutting a six-year vet who’s never done anything of consequence in the league because……….. WE GOT ANDREW BYNUM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

That was probably a few too many exclamation points for a player who has two bad knees and hasn’t played a game in a full calendar year. Much like his initially rumored $12M salary, there’s little guarantee with anything regarding what the Cavs will get out of Bynum. If he never fully recovers from his knee injuries and/or he doesn’t play at all this season the only negative consequence for the Cavs is that Dan Gilbert will be out six million bucks…chump change for him.

For the Cavs this is a classic “low-risk, high reward” signing. Like I said, if he doesn’t work out then they won’t pick up his option and it’s just water under the bridge. The only possible negative is that his $12M cap number maxes out the Cavs cap space for this summer, preventing them from signing any more free agents outside of the midlevel exception.[1] But let’s face it, who else were they going to sign that was going to have as big of a potential impact as Bynum? I like Andre Kirilenko and all but I’m not sold that they’d want to bring him on long-term anyways. Elton Brand? Please. This was the best deal to make regardless of how it turns out.

Now if, and let’s be honest it’s a fairly sizable if, Bynum returns from his injuries and is healthy for a full season and can revert back to his 2011-12 form when averaged 18.7 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, was a beast defensively, and was named an All-Star and Second-Team All-NBA then getting him for two years at $12M a year is a steal. A healthy Bynum is a difference-maker and a guy who changes your team significantly. For starters he’s one of the best low-post scorers in the NBA, something the Cavs haven’t had in, well, a long time. Then defensively he’s able to anchor the center of the paint and be a rim protector which is, again, something the Cavs haven’t had recently.

It’s pretty freaking impressive what Chris Grant has been able to do in remaking this team and reforming it into what it is today. When he took over from Danny Ferry he inherited a mess of older, over-paid role players who had no desire to compete anymore. It was a dead team. In just three years he’s completely flipped the team, keeping the only valuable piece in Varejao, and stock-piled it with young talented players and veterans at good values.[2] Look at the potential depth chart for this coming season:

PG—Kyrie Irving, Jarrett Jack
SG—Dion Waiters, Sergey Karasev, Carrick Felix
SF—Alonzo Gee, Earl Clark, CJ Miles
PF—Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett, Kevin Jones
C—Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao, Tyler Zeller

I really like that team. There’s a pretty obvious hole at the small forward position and I could be a conspiracy theorist and talk about how it’s interesting that the three guys at that position are not guaranteed in 2014-15 and it’s interesting that the Cavs haven’t made much of a push to bring in a player to start at that position and all because maybe they have plans for that spot next summer…but I’ll refrain.

One of the best things about that compilation of players is that there are a lot of different creative five-man units you could run with them. Here are a couple just for kicks:

  • Kyrie, Dion, Jack, Bennett, Andy (small-ball)
  • Kyrie, Dion, Bennett, Tristan, Bynum (big-ball)
  • Kyrie, Karasev, Miles, Bennett, Bynum (shooters)
  • Kyrie, Dion, Bennett, Andy, Bynum (big-big-ball)

You get the idea. There are a lot of interchangeable parts. You can play the three guards in any rotation that you want and it’ll work. You can probably do the same with the three main bigs in Tristan, Andy, and Bynum. I’ll bet that as he gets comfortable that Karasev will get a lot of run at the SF spot because of his shooting ability to pair with the slashing guards. And then there’s the x-factor in Bennett who can play a variety of different roles. Honestly I’d love to see him start at SF for the Cavs in place of either Gee or Clark.[3] But from the early feelers that they’ve put out it appears that the plan is to bring him off the bench, which is fine. It might be easier with rotations being what they are to use him in a variety of roles early in the season to get a feel for where his niche in the NBA really is.

It’s tough to say right now where the ceiling is for this team. I definitely think they’re a playoff team if injuries don’t completely derail the season.[4] I think they have a chance to land at around the 5th seed in the East. If Kyrie makes as big of a leap from Year 2 to 3 as he did from 1 to 2 then the ceiling could be considerably higher. It’s hard to say just how great of a player Kyrie can be ultimately. Then when you talk about the jumps in play for Tristan and Dion then it’s really easy to get really excited about the possibilities. Playing around veteran players will only help those guys mature into better players themselves. I’ve been saying for a while now that it’s fun and exciting to watch a young team grow, and while the past three years have been a major struggle it’ll all be worth it when these young guys finally arrive. And that time might be sooner rather than later.

The other great thing about the Bynum signing is how this deal sets the Cavs up for success going forward in free agency. It’s pretty remarkable that they were able to land a “big name” free agent without mortgaging the future. This isn’t like the Larry Hughes or even the Donyell Marshall signings of Cavaliers-past. Because it’s only for two years max it will have no effect on the Cavs being able to keep the young guys like Kyrie and Dion. It also will allow the Cavs to have the flexibility to bring in a max free agent next summer. I talked about this yesterday so I don’t want to dwell on it too much but the Cavs have enough players coming off the books combined with non-guaranteed deals for Varejao, Gee, and Clark where $20M in cap space becomes available without much effort. If the Cavs decided that they wanted to keep Andy on that team then it becomes a little trickier. They’d have to move two contracts to make up for Andy’s $9.7M cap figure. That’d probably be something like Jack’s contract along with one of either Dion, Tristan, or Bennett. My guess is that due to his injury history that Andy is the guy that they’ll cut loose, but at least the options are there. Which again brings me back to how great of a job Grant has done building this roster. When you compare what he’s done with how his predecessor Danny Ferry gave out big long-term deals to guys who weren’t difference-makers, you really have to give Grant a lot of credit. It’s not easy being the GM of a small-market NBA team in a cold city, but he’s doing a great job at it.

Now, while I could go on for a long time about my admiration for Chris Grant, he’s not the only one who deserves praise here. I was decidedly not excited when the Cavaliers announced that they were bringing back Mike Brown as head coach. While he was the man at the helm for those great teams it’s hard with coaches to not focus on the negatives—like when he tried guarding Orlando in the playoffs by putting Z on Dwight Howard, Andy on Rashard Lewis, and Delonte West on Hedu Turkoglu.[5] However, if nothing else it appears that Mike Brown is the greatest salesman of all time. I mean, seriously, this guy could sell ice to an eskimo. In the reports for the Cavs three free agents signings all three players have expressed the impact that Mike Brown had in their decision to sign in Cleveland. As Cleveland fans we’re constantly being told that no one of consequence would ever want to sign in Cleveland when they can play elsewhere. We’re told that it’s a boring, cold city and it’s no fun, “Mistake by the Lake” and all that crap. Well evidently Mike Brown is reason enough to get people to Cleveland. And anybody that can sell Cleveland to young impressionable athletes can be on my team any day.

I don’t want to throw cold water on this fun column but it has to be noted that all our excitement over Bynum could be moot as he might never even play a game in Cleveland because of his knees. There’s a chance that this signing could mean nothing to actual success on the basketball court. If he doesn’t work out then so be it. I’ve already said that there’s no real downside to bringing him in at the price that they got him for.

But don’t let anyone try and tell you this signing means nothing. It means that when Dan Gilbert said that they were going to push for the playoffs that he meant it and that plan is being seen in action. It also means that they aren’t foolishly just pushing for the playoffs with no regard for the future. They have a plan and we can clearly see that now. They have been aggressive this summer in going after the guys that they want without selling the future to do so. They have been able to improve this team markedly while maintaining flexibility for the road ahead. They have turned a team that had the No. 1 pick in the draft into one that will at the least be in playoff contention. They have given Cleveland hope that the darkness of the past is not a future reality. The horizon is bright for the Cavaliers. It’s a fun time to be a Cavs fan.

Believeland.


[1] Even though Bynum is only guaranteed $6M and has to reach incentives to get to $12M the higher number is the one that counts on the books with how it relates to the salary cap. This is obviously to stop teams from circumventing the salary cap by just signing guys to incentive-laden deals like “we’ll pay LeBron $1M base but he gets a $19M bonus if he plays in at least one game.”

[2] I could quibble with paying Earl Clark $4.5M but if it’s only for one year there’s not much harm done.

[3] You’ll notice that I didn’t include either Gee or Clark in any of the “dream” scenarios I listed. That’s because they’re not exactly dream-worthy players. I’m not sure I could be less excited about that duo.

[4] Not out of the realm of possibility mind you…knock on wood.

[5] In Mike Brown’s defense, those guys were all probably on performance-enhancing drugs at the time. We know that Lewis was and Hedu has also been suspended for doping. You can’t convince me that drugs didn’t play a factor in those guys playing out of their minds for that series. All that said, those defensive match-ups still haunt my dreams.

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