Should the Miami Heat Take Interest in Andrew Bynum?
In a move that has the Chicago Bulls thinking about the future but could have major implications for the Miami Heat in the present, the Bulls executed a significant trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday morning. They sent forward Luol Deng to the Cavs in exchange for center Andrew Bynum, three future draft picks and huge payroll savings.
The Bulls get a first round draft pick owed to the Cavs by the Sacramento Kings, which is top-12 protected in 2014, top-10 protected from 2015 through 2017, and, if not conveyed, converts to a 2017 second round pick if it is in the top 55 and nothing if not. They also get second round picks in 2015 and 2016, acquired by the Cavs from the Portland Trail Blazers. Finally, the Bulls will be able to swap positions with the Cavs in the first round of the 2015 draft as long as the Cavs’ pick is outside the top 14.
In addition to the draft picks, the Bulls will recognize huge payroll savings because Bynum’s current $12.25 million salary is only $6 million guaranteed. The trade will cut about $7.8 million off their cap and get them out of the tax. Chicago will save about $6.8 million in salary payouts and $12.3 million in taxes, as well as qualify for a tax distribution (paid to teams below the tax from half of the tax proceeds of teams above the tax) currently estimated at $3.2 million. That’s more than $22 million in instantaneous savings(1).
In order to recognize the savings, the Bulls will terminate Bynum’s contract shortly. He’ll then be placed on waivers at 5:00 pm, where he’ll remain for the following 48 hours, during which time other teams may assume his contract. No team in the league has the necessary cap space (or a large enough trade exception) to claim him. At 5:00 pm on Thursday, Bynum will become an unrestricted free agent.
Rumor has it that he wants to join the Los Angeles Clippers or the Heat.
Should the Heat be interested? Absolutely!
It’s been said, and it’s probably true, that Bynum doesn’t love playing basketball. He doesn’t wake up every morning yearning to have a ball in his hands. He doesn’t dream of being the best center to ever play the game. If he had to walk away from the game right now, two championships in hand, he probably wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.
Bynum doesn’t just have interests outside of basketball, he has obsessions. He has taken apart, rebuilt and enhanced everything from telephones to computers to cars. He’s built a computer that’s so technologically advanced that it was deemed the “George Jetson of computers.” He’s built a remote control car that can go 100 MPH.
He might be the only player in the N.B.A. who would have preferred a career as a mechanical engineer to one playing basketball, but he never really had a choice. When you’re 7-feet tall, coordinated and have soft hands, the game chooses you as much as you choose the game.
Whether you have to love the game of basketball in order to play it at the highest level isn’t really the point. Bynum was able to become one of the league’s best centers while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers despite the fact that basketball wasn’t his biggest passion in life.
Thanks to his incredible natural talents, he was still able to become a dominant force. So dominant and impressive that the Philadelphia 76ers gave up one of the best swingmen in the league in Andre Iguodala along with then fine prospects Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless in order to acquire him. But perpetual injury relegated that decision an unmitigated disaster.
Bynum’s psyche was never the part of him that had an adversarial relationship with the game. It was always more his body. He had his first knee surgery when he was 12 years old, and has had problems ever since. His skeletal structure simply isn’t big enough to support his massive frame, and what’s followed is a compilation of surgeries, pain and lost games.
The simple truth is that the player we see today is miles from his All-Star form. Suffice it to say, that version of Bynum is dead and buried. He will never be that man again. His former explosiveness will never return.
You know that high-pitched squealing sound your car makes when you’ve worn out your brake pads – the sound of metal grinding against metal as the cushion-less pads eat into and destroy your rotors, until they’ve done so much damage that your car can no longer stop?
That’s what is going on in Bynum’s knees. He’s worn out the cartilage that cushions his knee joints. Only it can’t be repaired, neither with a sixty minute appointment nor with years of rehabilitation. Cartilage doesn’t heal or regenerate. His femur (thighbone) will keep grinding into his tibia (shinbone) without any intervening cushion for the rest of his life, destroying the ends of both bones, creating bone spurs, making it exceedingly difficult and indescribably painful to bend and straighten the knee, until its done so much damage that walking will present a challenge. Now imagine what it must feel like when running or jumping – when the forces across the joint can reach up to six to eight times a person’s body weight.
Any time he runs up and down the court, Bynum feels sharp pain in his knees. It hurts most when he tries to jump in any way or make any kind of explosive movement. His game is now limited to what he can accomplish from the space he takes up with his 285-pound frame.
Said Bynum in late November, trying to describe the pain that he has come to accept will plague him for the rest of his career:
“It’s every time, so I’m playing through that. Whenever I try to do anything explosive, it’s pretty … it’s up there. I’ll just stick to the floor. Ground game. Position defense and position offense on the ground.”
It’s not hard to imagine why Bynum often talks about retirement. It’s really difficult to extract any measure of joy from something that causes your body such excruciating pain.
The sideshows that have followed him in recent years seem more like an extension of the angst that comes from suffering than they do a malevolent character. No one likes being in the hospital or the rehab that comes later, even if you’re getting paid millions of dollars. No one likes being in constant pain.
Still, while Bynum often sounds pessimistic in interviews, his actions show something different. He was highly engaged in workouts and rehab even after signing with the Cavs this summer. He lost more than 25 pounds and diligently worked to build his stamina. These are the actions of a man who, in the right environment, seems to have more to give.
For Bynum, it would appear that passion and work ethic are two distinct concepts, and need to be delineated.
Given his limitations, Bynum must be re-imagined as a specialist of sorts – a 20-or-so-minute performer under ideal circumstances. But his physical gifts – size, strength, long arms and excellent hands – still matter on the basketball court and allow him to make an impact.
Offensively, he is one of the league’s few remaining true back-to-the-basket low post centers, and an overpowering one at that. He is a heavy load to guard one-on-one on the blocks, as he’ll simply back his defender down until he gets to the rim and then finish with a right or left-handed jump hook or jump shot. The difference between his Lakers days and now is that he used to be able to leverage his agility and explosiveness to spin off his defender and finish with a dunk. His injuries have taken away that ability. He can no longer create that separation or generate that lift.
Still, his legitimate back-down threat will force teams to choose between giving him a high percentage shot at the rim and doubling to get the ball out of his hands, in which case he is a willing passer who is able to see above traps to find open teammates. Properly leveraged with ideal floor spacing, these skills can provide a basketball team with quality shots in the two most statistically desirable spots on the floor: in the paint and behind the three-point line.
He is also such a large presence on the offensive glass that he demands attention from defensive rebounders, often creating space for teammates penetrating through the lane and discouraging help defense at the rim. If he is left alone under the basket while an opposing big man chases a shot block, his soft hands allow him to receive a pass from a driving teammate and finish against a rotating defender. If his driving teammate instead elects to shoot through the block attempt, due to his sheer size, Bynum can often get to missed shots with tap-ins or tap-outs.
Defensively, Bynum even at his best was never confused as an active, scrambling defender, but he is practically nailed to the painted area now.
On pick-and-rolls, he’ll sag back, affixed to the dotted line, much like Roy Hibbert in Indiana.
On man-to-man post defense, he’ll use his massive frame to force his cover away from the rim and into a bad shot.
As a weak-side defender, he is fairly aware and will zone over to stop penetration or pick up the roll man if his frontcourt counterpart is playing a screen aggressively. He doesn’t have much lift, but will contest shots at the rim with his length.
He used to be a dominating defensive anchor. Even in his weakened state, he still poses a significant challenge for the opposition.
Opponents have shot just 36.5% and scored just .77 points per possession on the 74 recorded half-court plays in which he was the initial defender. Opponents in general are shooting just 37.6% at the rim when Bynum is within five feet of both the basket and the offensive player attempting the shot. Those aren’t just solid numbers. They’re some of the best in the league. The sample size qualifications apply, but there’s no denying that Bynum is really good at being large.
He’s not just good at defending the rim but also at following it up on the glass. If the ball is in his vicinity, his Velcro hands ensure a rebound.
The key for Bynum is that as long as the action is in his area, he can be effective, but he can’t (and won’t) move a whole lot on either end of the floor, nor will he get down the floor with any quickness.
After his last season with the Lakers, in which he put up career numbers and was the starting center in the All-Star game for the Western Conference, many felt like it was time for Bynum to lead his own team, that he was ready to be a number one option. Clearly the 76ers felt that way, but it’s apparent now that Bynum is not the kind of guy you can rely on to carry your team night in and night out. He’s not physically or mentally capable.
When he was a Laker, he had Mitch Kupchak, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Phil Jackson there as mentors to show him the way and make sure that he did his part. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were also there to ensure that if Bynum didn’t show up for whatever reason, the team’s level of play was still extremely high. It’s how he performed in that environment that is giving him another lifeline in the N.B.A.
The Heat have one of the strongest organizational cultures in the league, with multiple strong voices to help keep Bynum in line and focused. They’re a two-time defending champion without him. They already have a similar project in Greg Oden, who probably fits what they need out of a backup big, if he is able to play, more than Bynum does anyway. The Heat would continue to be in prime position without Bynum, but that much more imposing with him.
On the court, Bynum is a bit of a mismatch as a slow, plodding player within the Heat’s high-octane offensive attack.
But the Heat have the ideal personnel to make it work seamlessly – a bunch of wholly unselfish players who understand the value of floor spacing and can knock down the open three-ball with deadly precision, giving Bynum the room to operate one-on-one in the post or the ability to kick the ball out if the double team comes, mixed in with a couple of future Hall of Famers who love to penetrate the lane and either finish strong at the basket or dump the ball off to an open teammate at the rim, giving Bynum plenty of easy looks and offensive rebound opportunities.
Defensively, the Heat would have to adjust their schemes considerably while Bynum is on the court, as he has no shot at being able to play the aggressive style of defense Miami practices.
But don’t get deluded into a self-perpetuating cycle of confirmation bias. The Heat plays its current higher-risk, more demanding style of defense, predicated on trapping, jumping passing lanes and creating turnovers, because it doesn’t have a dominant interior presence on which to rely. The constant rotations the defense demands in an attempt to mitigate its less physical front line often creates turnovers upon which the team thrives, but just as often leaves opposing players with horrible mismatches to exploit and others entirely wide open. As a result, the Heat defense is currently among the league’s worst in field goal percentage defense, three-point field goal percentage defense, and defensive rebounding.
The Heat would presumably love to play a less frenetic, less tiring style of defense that doesn’t leave them vulnerable all around the court – one that would allow the team to play straight man-to-man defense against an opposing center, one with a huge last line of defense to contest the penetration of a perimeter attacker and allow the perimeter defenders to stay home on and challenge outside shooters.
Pat Riley said it best: “We would like to get size. We would like to get length… We’d like to get size that we can put in there, in the middle… I don’t know if … [we’re] going to [be able to] get a back-to-the-basket player, but we’d like to at least get size…”
Of course, Bynum isn’t a perfect solution for the Heat. His usefulness on the court would be dictated by match-ups. He’d be primarily useful against one type of opponent – those with big centers who can overpower Miami’s current center rotation and devastate Miami with their interior defense and rebounding. During the regular season, that’s a small percentage of N.B.A. teams. During the playoffs, that percentage increases drastically and the mismatch is exploited more constantly.
Practically speaking, the only opponent that has a chance to stand in Miami’s way toward winning a fourth consecutive N.B.A. Finals birth in a complete walkover versus the depleted Eastern Conference is the Indiana Pacers. They feature a slow, plodding center of their own – an elite-level team defender and rim protector who nonetheless struggles as a post defender, one for whom Bynum would present a huge challenge.
Roy Hibbert rates out as a below average straight-up post defender and Bynum, injuries notwithstanding, is still among the league’s best at that very thing. That’s a huge opportunity waiting to be exploited. It could potentially turn the Heat’s biggest vulnerability in the match-up into a strength. It is predicated on a skill-set that neither Oden nor any other current Heat player has.
Most guys of his questionable character would have been run out of the league and forgotten about by now, but Bynum is fortunate to be blessed with great size and skill. Even if he doesn’t love the game, he can still be very good, especially when he has reason to stay engaged. In Cleveland, with the Cavs winning less than a third of their games and bickering internally, he had nothing to fight for. In Miami, he’d be fighting for an N.B.A. championship.
Even if the Heat don’t end up getting any kind of production out of Bynum, it’s still a worthwhile gamble, just like it was for the Cavs – although they had to pay a much higher price than the Heat figure to pay.
The Cavs paid more than $5 million for what amounted to 24 games of production. The Heat won’t offer anything more than a rest-of-season minimum salary contract.
That’s more than three months of his services, plus an entire playoff run, at the bargain price of no more than $1,765,985 including the tax (which amount falls by $18,206 every day thereafter for the rest of the season), if he chooses to accept.
The Heat can deflect more than half that cost in creating the necessary roster spot by waiving Roger Mason, Jr. prior to the 5:00 pm guarantee deadline. With so much on the line, both historically speaking and in the moment, the remaining $774,336 has to be a price Heat owner Micky Arison is willing to pay.
(1) The $7.8 million in savings off the cap assumes that the Bulls sign an additional player after waiving Bynum in order to build back up to the 13-player minimum. The $6.8 million in payroll savings is calculated as the $8.1 million remaining on Deng’s contract less the $740K remaining on Bynum’s guarantee less an estimated $505K cost of the 13th player. The $3.2 million tax distribution estimate is reduced from the current $3.6 million estimate to reflect the fact that the Bulls would no longer contribute their $12.3 million to the pool.