BY ALEX RAFFALLI
There is an obvious difference in the Cavaliers style of play when 285 pound, 7-foot center Andrew Bynum is on the court. One that this young Cleveland team hasn’t been able to take full advantage of so far.
GETTING THE BALL INTO THIS MAN'S GIANT CAPABLE HANDS IS A TOP GOAL OF THE CAVS (David Liam Kyle NBAE/Getty)
As I fly over the Atlantic on my way back home for Christmas, Mike Brown’s words after the 116-113 home loss to Portland still resonate in my head, almost 24 hours later. « We don’t know how to give him the ball » said the winningest coach in franchise history, when I asked post-game why the former Laker, who finished with 13 points and 7 rebounds in 26 minutes of play, barely touched the ball in the second half after a stellar first quarter.
The sad truth is that Cleveland’s offense, although doing much better lately, goes into complete shock when Bynum cannot be fed in the post. This forces Brown to bench his All-Star rather than seeing him use whatever little life is left in his knees, running back and forth all 94 feet to try to get back on defense about 10 seconds after his own man has reached the paint.
Why? Because they don’t know how to give him the ball. After that grueling loss to the best team in basketball, Mike Brown’s message was clear: if you want to take Bynum out of the game, just front him in the post and our backcourt will not be able to pass him the ball. On top of that, it will throw everything they are trying to achieve offensively off as they use 20 seconds of the shot clock to give it to the big man inside before realizing it is not happening and setting for a terrible shot. Or turn it over in desperation.
I have mixed feelings about this. I like that Mike Brown is calling out his young stars, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, for not being able to complete an entry pass at the NBA level. It is pathetic, but I don’t know why Brown is saying it out loud for the whole league to hear. In his comments, he emphasized that he wishes Bynum would get more touches on the low block, where « no one can guard him one on one ». But he hasn’t come up with a smart solution to free the guy who initiates his whole offense and is pointing the finger at the Cavs guards for the failure to complete the first step of the offensive system.
I was very angry at the Cavaliers for about two weeks after the Chicago Bulls game that seemed to signal the return of Bynum (20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocks) after a full season away from basketball and another round of knee surgeries. They did not have an answer for other bigs fronting Bynum. Now, I am mesmerized at their inability to complete such a simple basketball play.
Bynum has an old school type of game. Big men of his size and skill come once in a generation. He can play on both blocks, even if he seems to prefer being set up on the right side, where he can face up, go over both shoulders for a hook, or spin in the lane. He can also take a couple dribbles and finish with a nifty layup or a devastating dunk at the rim. This does not make him ineffective on the left block, where he seems to enjoy turning around towards the baseline for a fadeaway jumper that is so sweet you wonder how such a monstruous human being can move so smoothly, or a simple but extremely efficient up and under when he turns towards the paint. His combination of strength, quickness and footwork makes him a complete package guy around whom you want to build a powerful offense. It is easy to understand why Mike Brown wants to make him the number one threat on that end of the floor.
So, back to the guards, why can’t they find the New Jersey native inside? Brown’s argument is that « it takes time » and that none of his players ever played with such a dominant force in the paint. OK… Does that mean they can’t learn how to make a pass? If Mike Brown does not want to resort to spending hours in the gym during practice teaching an NBA All-Star how to make a play that you should know by the time you finish 8th grade, maybe he could come up with more ways to free Bynum inside. Every time Bynum has been fronted (think of Chris Bosh on every single possession in both games against the Heat : Big Drew averages 4 points and 5.5 rebounds against the two-time champions), the Cavs have completely lost their rhythm offensively. Brown says he asks his players to take a couple dribbles towards the baseline to fight the 3/4th front to find the right angle for the pass.
He could set up specific plays to find Bynum (or anyone else) in the post. Phil Jackson did it for years in Chicago and Los Angeles as a way to set up his triangle offense. The Spurs run very efficient plays to get Duncan (or Splitter these days) the ball in the right spot. And if he is doubled before he touches the ball, with help coming from the weak side, they find an open shooter in the opposite corner. This is not rocket science… you see it every night in every NBA arena!
I hope, for their sake and my sanity, that the Cavaliers can figure out how to use Bynum more effectively. I don’t think they expected he could contribute like he has shown he could so early. I take solace in the fact that it seems they were right to give it a shot when everyone kept saying he was done and would never be good again. Now, go spend hours in the gym learning how to make a damn entry pass!
Alex Raffalli, is a media credentialled writer for the French NBA blog Basket Americain, and is also the creator of the Cleveland Cavaliers podcast "PodCavs". He contributed this article while on a plane over the Atlantic Ocean, where he has returned for the holidays.