The Indiana Pacers entered Saturday with a three-game lead over the Miami Heat for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but there is no time to sit comfortably when aiming to knock off the two-time defending NBA champions.
Andrew Bynum flew into Indianapolis on Friday and by Saturday morning the Pacers had him signed to a $1 million deal for the remainder of the season. He fills the team’s 15th, and final, roster spot as they prepare for the stretch run.
The move doesn’t carry a ton of risk, but Larry Bird certainly is gambling on Bynum, who has had an interesting 18 months.
The Los Angeles Lakers traded Bynum to the Philadelphia 76ers in August 2012 as part of a four-team deal that sent Dwight Howard to Hollywood and Andre Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets. The trade seems to have been varying degrees of cursed for those involved. Bynum is three teams removed from the 76ers. Howard and Iguodala left as free agents and are now established with the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, respectively.
Bynum’s tenure with Philadelphia was nothing short of disastrous. Knee issues caused him to carry the label of “out indefinitely” for most of the year. It wasn’t until March that he was declared out for the season after he underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees.
Size matters in the NBA, even with the role of a back-to-the-basket center diminishing. Despite serious injury concerns, the Cleveland Cavaliers signed Bynum to a two-year deal worth as much as $25 million this past summer. Over 24 games, he averaged 20 minutes, 8.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.
The Cavaliers sent Bynum, along with draft picks, to the Chicago Bulls for Luol Deng on Jan. 7. Bynum was waived by Chicago the same day in a salary cap move that may have saved them as much as $20 million.
Having disappointed fans in Philadelphia, and to a much lesser degree in Cleveland, Bynum is now in a much different situation.
Even if he proves to be healthy and ready to contribute on a team with title aspirations, the Pacers won’t ask Bynum to play all that much. The player directly affected by his arrival is backup center Ian Mahinmi, who said all the right things on Saturday and is averaging 16 minutes behind Roy Hibbert this season.
Frank Vogel leans heavily on his starters, something he had to do last season because of a weak second unit. Indiana signed C.J. Watson and traded for Luis Scola last summer to bolster the second unit, which has also added a healthy Danny Granger since the beginning of the season. Despite those three additions -- Granger played in just five games last season -- the bench has been an issue at times once again.
In a perfect world, Bynum would overtake Mahinmi as Hibbert’s backup, sliding the incumbent to third string. Mahinimi would be a very expensive emergency big man with a deal valued at $4 million annually through the 2015-16 season, but this is where the potential reward lies for the Pacers.
Mahinmi has done an admirable job defensively, but too often commits fouls when beat and is nothing more than a below-average offensive option. He does nothing for Indiana’s spacing, allowing opposing defenses to key on the midrange game of Scola and perimeter looks for Granger and Watson.
A healthy and engaged Bynum is an immediate upgrade offensively and when mobile can protect the rim in the same manner that Hibbert does. The Pacers have already said they don’t expect Bynum to play until around the All-Star break, leaving roughly 30 regular-season games for them to integrate him.
We may not be able to truly quantify what Bynum brings to the Pacers until the postseason, when we could see an incredible battle between reclamation projects if Greg Oden’s Heat matchup with Bynum’s Pacers in what could be another entertaining Eastern Conference Finals.
If Bynum earns a significant role in the rotation, I’ll be much more interested in how he effects those around him than whatever individual statistics he posts. After a win over the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday night, the Pacers are 36-10, so there is little room for improvement in terms of wins and losses at this point.
Grade for Bynum: A
Bynum could have signed for more elsewhere, but has made a lot of money over the last season and a half despite only playing in 24 games. Four other teams were reportedly interested in Bynum, including the Heat, who could have offered him $3 million if they had cleared a roster spot.
Assuming his other suitors weren’t as high in the standings as Indiana and Miami, choosing the Pacers makes obvious sense. The Heat are already focused on turning Oden into a postseason weapon and he stands to get more attention from the coaching staff with Indiana.
Bynum is unlikely to be the main reason the Pacers don’t advance to the NBA Finals, or win it all. However, if everything falls into place he could be one of many reasons why they do finally win their first NBA championship.
Grade for the Pacers: B
This seems like a low-risk move for the Pacers, but it is more of an intermediate one.
They would have been just fine without Bynum, having come within 48 minutes of eliminating the Heat last June. If he never takes the court in blue-and-gold, the most lasting effect will be the extra million spent by ownership and flexibility lost by filling their final roster spot.
Bird staunchly defended critics of the deal, who are worried about what the addition will do to the team’s chemistry. There are merits to that argument, especially given how cohesive the club has been all season.
Granger, the team’s No. 1 option for years before injuries leveled him, has slid in happily as a member of the second unit. Paul George is one of the NBA’s newest, and youngest, superstars, but has no problem deferring to his teammates. Lance Stephenson is Bird’s most recent project, having grown from an immature, reckless playground-baller to a consistent, triple-double threat with an edge.
How does Bynum fit into all that?
It’s almost impossible to predict, but the culture in Indiana has been so strong recently that it seems more likely Bynum will assimilate than disrupt.
If you didn’t think the Pacers were all-in this season, this move confirms it. They are on pace to win more than 64 games and a trip to at least the Conference Finals seems inevitable. Windows open and close at an alarming rate in the NBA, even if it seems like the gap between the haves and the have-nots is vast.
Stephenson and Granger will hit the market this summer and while everything indicates that Stephenson will stay put, nothing is guaranteed. This group, which has been special, may not be the same next fall.
Larry Bird wants to bring a championship to Indiana and he’s willing to take a few more risks in order to do it.