bynum smiles

CHRIS GRANTLAND: THE JOY OF ANDREW BYNUM

Suppose that there are two kinds of existences.  One seen and one unseen.  One which changes erratically and unpredictably with the outside world, one which is a constant within the mind.  It is this way that the body drags the soul though the world.  It is in this way that Andrew Bynum is becoming what his body is fighting against.  

NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT HIS HAIR ANYMORE.  THEY'RE TALKING ABOUT THE SPACE BETWEEN HIS FEET AND THE GROUND AND HOW HE GOT THERE. (David Liam Kyle NBAE/Getty Images)

“It felt good.  I won’t lie to you.”  – Andrew Bynum, postgame.

Saturday night changed everything.  It was the night that Bynum showed that he could still be dominant, that he could be the focus of all attention on the court.  That he could pound home strong dunks, play tough inside, maintain it through an NBA game, then close out and win.  Saturday night opened our imaginations, and rightly so.

Andrew Bynum played 30 minutes in a basketball game Saturday night against the Chicago Bulls in a 97-93 Cavalier win.  That, in and of itself, was something.  This giant man, 7 foot tall, 285 pounds of muscle, tendons, organs, bones and possibly a serious degenerative condition in both knees  said within weeks ago that he lacked “explosiveness”, that he had considered retirement and that he was still searching for joy in basketball, for meaning behind his the sensation of his aching knees. 

It was the Bynum monster dunk on Carlos Boozer in the first quarter, his first posterizing dunk as a Cavalier, that seemed calculated as a response to the Quicken Loans Arena crowd booing and giving shit to Boozer for Boozer’s  2004 transgression in lying to Cavaliers former owner, the blind Gordon Gund, about a promise to sign with the Cavaliers long term so that he could get out of the deal he had and sign elsewhere. It lit Boozer up and gave him a taste of the hellfire that awaits him.

Then, almost immediately, Bynum was on defense, with back to back blocks on attempts by Joakim Noah, who claimed that he hated the city of Cleveland, mocking that “no one goes on vacation to Cleveland”.  This was just the first quarter but there was already a measure of vengeance before victory.  This was the Bulls team that dominated the Cavaliers in the fourth quarter of Bynum’s first start as a Cavalier in Chicago on Veterans Day.  This was different, clearly.  This was Saturday.

It was Saturday that Bynum imposed his will on the Bulls and their center Joakim Noah for 30 minutes and 6 seconds.  He blocked 5 shots, grabbed 10 rebounds and scored 20 points, statistics alone which were a rare accomplishment for a Cleveland Cavalier, ever.  But he also flashed passing skills, played defense, and altered shots which were not accounted for in those statistcs, he changed the terrain of the court for the Cavaliers.  His footwork is perfect.  His ball handling is perfect.  His release on his shot is perfect.  His understanding of how the offense works, how to anchor the defense, how to pace his activity during the game to maximize his ability… and his cognition of what his happening on the court, his internal accountability and self-awareness, they are astounding when they are at their peak, when he is tuned in with crystal clarity. 

This is the All Star, this is the best center in basketball.  This is what Bynum could look like.  This is what he does look like, right now and right here.

 

THE LAKERS, THE SIXERS AND THE RETURN OF THE BIG MAN PARADIGM

Bynum has not played a game this effectively since that last playoff run with Mike Brown and the Lakers in the spring of 2012 which ended with a loss to the eventual Western Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder.  Bynum never played less than 34 minutes in any of the Lakers 12 playoff games.   He was an essential piece to that Laker team.

THERE IS A PASSION IN ANDREW BYNUM, WHICH, WHEN HARNESSED, IS INDOMITABLE. (shatterthebackboard.com)

Man, those were different times.  There had been some knee problems of course, but that last playoff run… just a first time all star, skilled offensively with mature moves, with a shooting touch, and with that dominating body and behind the mentoring of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  With Mike Brown’s coaching, Bynum was touching greatness at 24 years old.

It was Bynum who declared that anything less than a Laker 2012 championship would be a failure before the playoffs started, who then in game 1 against the Denver Nuggets went out and got a triple double, registering 10 blocks.  It was Bynum had an 18 rebound game 7 in the series finale that sent the Lakers to the second round of the playoffs. 

It was Bynum who was widely considered at the height of his profession as the best center in the NBA, at age 24, with plumes of smoke coming out of his head because he was not a machine, he was a man, imperfect in his thoughts and motivation, an imperfect combination of humanity, talent, skill and ability.  Including the playoffs, in the lockout shortened season of 2011-12, Bynum played 72 of 78 of the Laker games and averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds a game.  Bynum had played a total of 74 playoff games from the time he had been drafted by the Lakers at 18 years old.  By comparison, Anderson Varejao, who made serious playoff runs 5 years in a row and is now 30 years old has played a total of 71 playoff games.  Dwight Howard has played 61.

Bynum was the only player that was included in absolutely every reported trade scenerio involving Dwight Howard.  The Howard trade, that four team transaction consumated August 10, 2012 which sent 3 Sixers players, including Andre Iguodala and a first round draft, pick out of Philadelphia, placed Bynum on a rebuilt Sixers team.  This immediately reloaded the Sixers with himself and veteran shoting guard Jason Richardson. 

Bynum would return to the east coast, where his roots were, where he had grown up just outside of Princeton, New Jersey not all that long ago.  He left after high school.  He returned  a two time NBA champion.   He had been a part of what stopped the first Oklahoma City Thunder playoff run, what stopped Dwight Howard himself in the 2009 NBA Finals.  He would not have to defer to either Hall of Fame shooting guard Kobe Bryant, or all world big man Pau Gasol.  He would be the number one offensive option.

That first press conference, when he was introduced after the trade in Philadelphia, is full of optimism.  He downplays the severity of his knee problems, discusses the procedure to reduce inflammation that he will undergo in Germany.  He points out his success and number of games he has just played over 2011-12 for Mike Brown. 

When he is asked about his impending free agency at the end of the 2012-13 season, Bynum says he is already leaning towards staying with the Sixers.  He says he doesn’t want to be in a negative situation like the Dwight Howard, that he likes to stay positive.  Jason Richardson says that playing with Howard in Orlando has prepared him to play with Howard.

Rod Thorn, the Sixers GM calls Bynum a “franchise player”, someone who is “experienced, but has not reached his prime”.  Bynum says he thinks the Sixers can be a “dominant team” that comes out of the Eastern Conference.  Sixer fans slid into imagination loafers, which had never been sized so correctly.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, after the trade Abdul-Jabbar comments on Bynum.  He calls the Sixers get of Bynum “nothing short of a coup”, but also offers that “There are times when he wants to play, do a great job and he goes out and does it.  There are other times when it seems like he’s not focused.”

That focus came under serious scrutiny for over a year as Bynum struggled with knee problems and was sharply criticized for a perception that he lacked motivation to return, as he collected a $16 million dollar salary, as he sat on the bench in a suit.

Sixers doctors diagnosed him with, among other knee issues, severe degenerative conditions in his knees interpreted by some to be arthritic in nature, but being out of shape to play, a setback caused by a bowling injury, Sixers fans watching Spencer Hawes play 30 minutes a night, and just losing further frustrated the entire situation. One player said that he had never met anyone in the NBA that liked basketball less than Andrew Bynum. 

 

CAVALIER ANDREW BYNUM VERSUS THE BULLS.  NOVEMBER 30, 2013.

ANDREW BYNUM IS IN A CAVALIER UNIFORM.  ANDREW BYNUM IS SMILING. (David Liam Kyle NBAE/Getty Images)

Now he’s playing and playing through pain in his knees and pain he feels more when he comes down hard after dunking.  His muscles are in incredible shape, but his bones are not.  Before this season, there was no way to tell that Bynum would be back for opening day, that his presence in the paint would have this kind of impact, that he would have a shooting touch, that he would play 30 minutes in a game played before December.  There was no way for the Cavaliers to tell definitively that Bynum would be back at all.

But here he is, coming back into the game in the fourth quarter, with the outcome still in question after a shunken Cavalier lead has dwindled, with the Cleveland Cavaliers depending on him to contribute.  With no restriction on Mike Brown on his minutes or activities.  Here he is, sending Bulls’ shots away with his giant arms and hands.  Here he is, smiling slightly, pumping his fist on a basketball court.  Here he is, ferocious. 

It spills over into the frontcourt, where Tristan Thompson has reemerged after slipping into a void for over two weeks since whatever happened in the locker room in Minnesota happened. 

It spills over into the backcourt, where Dion Waiters was almost perfect in his efficiency, shooting 8-10 from the floor.  Kyrie Irving, who in a 91-77 loss to Philadelphia last April literally forgot that he had 4 fouls in the first half and then was removed from the game permanently with 10 minutes left in the third quarter after intentionally fouling Evan Turner, is playing with greater intensity, dealing a hard foul on defense to prevent a late game layup.   Irving and Waiters go back to back with critical fast break points off steals (one of which was a pass altered by Bynum).  Their layups are unspectacular, but certain.  This is Mike Brown basketball.

We can fairly imagine this team with a dominating yet imperfect and human center because he has arrived, but it is still uncertain what exactly this means.

What we know is that in this, the Andrew Bynum Era, we are groping in the dark and discovering the shape of this team as our fingertips find them and while the season slowly forms around us.  All we know is that, objectively, the Cavaliers defeated the Bulls on one Saturday night before a buzzing home crowd, that this indicates that on this night they were the better team, and that Andrew Bynum’s abilities, his determination, and his tenacity were a major contribution to that objective measure.

This all happened because Andrew Bynum has willed it in a weight room, in drills, through surgeries, through hours of rehabilitation and workouts.  As he sat with giant bags of ice on his knees after practices, after games, as he felt pain after dunking in that game, now almost a month ago, in Milwaukee.  As these days in this season begin to move faster, as the season and the world spins around that will, can that will avoid and overcome the spinning erratic and unpredictable existence of the reality within those giant fragile knees?  

It is impossible to know, other than to say that we have seen more than just a glimpse of what is possible.   And that for what happens next, this can only be the beginning.

 

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