A history of knee injuries is not the reason Andrew Bynum has had to settle for an incentive-laden contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It certainly did not help, but it’s not the reason.
Bynum found himself agreeing to a two-year deal with only $6 million guaranteed not merely because of the injuries to both knees that caused him to miss all of last season with the Philadelphia 76ers and major parts of six others in his previous seven NBA seasons. Teams have had no trouble throwing big contracts at big men with injury worries over the years, from Bill Walton to Amare Stoudemire. It takes a while for an inability to get on the court to scare teams away.
But an unwillingness to get back on the court? That can scare off teams almost immediately.
That is why Bynum finds himself preparing to ink a team-friendly contract with Cleveland, a young squad with ample salary cap space and favorable circumstances to take a chance on someone like Bynum. If Bynum fulfills the potential in his 25-year-old body over the next two years, he will be the best $24.5 million the Cavs ever spent. If he lollygags through his recovery and shows no real dedication to getting back on the court — as he did with the Sixers last season — he will essentially be a slightly more expensive version of a mid-level player on a one-year contract, and the Cavs can go right back to building around Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters.
Although not specifically built into the language of the contract, Bynum’s deal also includes what can be called a “LeBron James exception.” Privately, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is believed to harbor hopes of signing James in the summer of 2014, when the Heat star can opt out of his contract and sign a maximum deal. (James settled for slightly less than the max when he orchestrated the 2010 sign-and-trade to Miami.) It may be irrational hopefulness by Gilbert, but it works math-wise for the Cavs and for James. And this Bynum deal does nothing to change that.
The Cavs are currently on the hook for $30.7 million in salaries in 2014-15, with much of that tied up in team options, according to the indispensable ShamSports. Assuming Bynum earns all $12.5 million in the second, non-guaranteed year of his deal, the Cavs’ payroll would push all the way up to around $43 million. That’s still $16 million below a safe approximation of where the salary cap would be and a gargantuan $30 million below the assumed luxury tax level.
There would be plenty of space to bring James back to Cleveland, even if the Cavs can’t completely break the bank. (Thompson and Irving would be entering the last year of their rookie deals before becoming eligible for restricted free agency, and Waiters’ qualifying offer would be only one year away.) If Bynum is healthy and the Cavs wanted to keep him around with James and their young core, things could get even tighter. But the beauty of this Bynum deal is that they don’t need to worry about that. They could swap out a very expensive James for a very affordable Bynum and remain a force in the Eastern Conference.
Make no mistake, that is what is at stake here for the Cavs. With one move worth as little as $6 million, the Cavs took a shot at accelerating their growth into a contender for home court in the first round of the playoffs by a year or two while doing nothing to hurt their long-term growth. Irving and Thompson seem to possess the maturity to continue the growth they showed last season, even if Bynum’s attitude threatens to poison the locker room. If everything crumbles this year, taking a fourth consecutive trip to the draft lottery wouldn’t be the worst thing next June, when the prizes at the top of the class are almost worth 82 games of suffering.
The Sixers never enjoyed such leverage with Bynum. They had to pay him his $17 million whether he played or not, and he knew it. They had dealt away Andre Iguodala, one of the most solid two-way players in the game, from a team that reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals for a gamble that had no fallback if it did not work out. If Bynum didn’t want to suit up for the Sixers, he knew some team would still find his talent enticing enough to offer him a new contract. He was right, in a sense. He simply overestimated his worth.
There is no such thing as a no-risk move, particularly when it involves Bynum’s knees and, more importantly, Bynum’s head. The Cavs are not assured that this move will be a success, but in contrast to the Sixers last season, they are assured it will not completely blow up in their faces. As it pertains to Bynum, those odds are probably as good as you’re going to get.