Andrew Bynum’s Injury History, Potential Value Make Him NBA’s Most Intriguing Free Agent

Andrew BynumFrom just about every perspective, Andrew Bynum‘s season was an unmitigated disaster. It was a disaster for the Sixers, for whom he never played a game. It was a disaster for Sixers fans, who were fooled into thinking their team was on the verge of contending. And it was unquestionably a disaster for Bynum, who went from vying for a maximum contract to having to go hat-in-hand to teams with sub-max salary cap space.

One party benefited from the Bynum saga, however: Anyone who enjoys seeing how things play out in free agent season.

In a summer that includes free agents like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Josh Smith, Bynum is by far the most intriguing. He is nowhere near the best of the bunch, and he will be no more than most teams’ Plan B. Yet how his free agency unfolds will be fascinating to watch.

Bynum was a bust in 2012-13. He made close to $17 million to watch the Sixers lose 48 games. He donned a Sixers jersey once, in a promotional photo shortly after the trade, and his hair became as much of a focus as his balky knees as the season wore on. Any team looking to sign Bynum for the future faces the possibility of repeating that nightmare.

But just about every general manager with some money to spend has to be asking himself, what if last season doesn’t repeat itself? What if Bynum actually, you know, takes the court in 2013-14, and presumably plays very well? What if, as anticipated, his recent injury issues have persuaded Bynum and his agent to sign for less than the four-year, $88 million maximum a team other than Philadelphia could offer? What if he accepts something along the lines of $75 million over four years — still a pretty penny, but millions less than the max deal Howard is expected to get, and that fellow free agent big men Smith and Al Jefferson are seeking?

Everyone on this summer’s free agent market is flawed, aside from Paul, who is expected to re-sign with the Clippers. Smith’s shot selection is shoddy. Jefferson can score in the post but can’t pass or defend. Andre Iguodala, who might be the third-best free agent in the crop, is an excellent defender and finisher who has often been mislabeled as a No. 1 scoring option. Howard is the ringmaster of his own personal circus.

Bynum is no picnic, either. He infuriated teammates in Los Angeles and later executives in Philadelphia for his cavalier attitude toward playing hard all the time (or playing at all, in the latter case). He’s not an incredible passer, if you want to nitpick, although he does just about everything else really, really well. Even if $18 million is a huge potential bargain for Bynum if his knees hold up, it would also be a massive sunk cost if they do not.

Still, that uncertainty is part of what makes Bynum’s situation so interesting. His options are dwindling, if he’s after a big payday. Only Dallas, Houston, Cleveland, Atlanta and Philadelphia have the cap room and a realistic demand for Bynum’s services. Philly seems too smart to go back down that road, particularly after acquiring rookie Nerlens Noel on draft night. Dallas or Houston will be taken out of the equation if one lands Howard. Atlanta seems oddly attracted to the idea of bringing back Smith, whom the Hawks could not wait to unload in the middle of last season. At this rate, Cleveland could end up bidding only against itself.

Of course, this is just Day 1 of free agency. (Teams and players’ agents can begin the negotiate, but no formal contracts can be signed for another two weeks.) The Trail Blazers, who have long had a fetish for injury-prone big men, reportedly want in on the Bynum sweepstakes, too. If the Rockets or Mavericks lose out on Howard, they could be so desperate for an impact center they might just go ahead and throw a max deal at Bynum. Maybe a dark horse like the Jazz, who have only five players under contract, emerges. (It’s unlikely, but we’re just riffing here.)

Wherever Bynum ends up, it will not be a dream scenario. Someone will have to make a compromise, whether team, player or both. Somebody will hold their nose and turn their head while putting ink to paper. The only certainty is that I’m sure glad it’s not my money.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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