The Cleveland Cavaliers have suspended, shopped and now apparently plan to release Andrew Bynum sometime before Jan. 7, when his contract becomes fully guaranteed. (The team will save about $6 million by doing this.) Bynum has played this season as if he were performing an interpretive dance about despair. It’s one thing to see a player occasionally get down on himself, and another to watch him swish a hook and feel nothing. Bynum has mostly clanked jumpers this year, but he has had sporadic moments of inspiration and they seem to bring him as much joy as a court summons. This marks the second time in a calendar year that he has alienated a team and its fans. Let’s go through this story point-by-point.
1. Bynum has been suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team,” which I assume means “not wanting to be on the team anymore.” According to whatever a “league source” is, Bynum did something in practice a few days ago that angered someone important, and he was effectively kicked off the team. This incident was part of a larger attitude problem, a stigma that has been attached to Bynum his entire career. Marcus Camby, who has for the past few years only intermittently been physically able to play basketball, stuck around the NBA until the end of last year in part because teams thought he was valuable as a person, if not a player. Bynum has been the inverse for much of his career, and because he’s no longer one of the league’s best centers, it has made him disposable.
2. With that said, who would play for the Cavs if they didn’t absolutely have to? In a conference composed chiefly of bad teams, the Cavs are one of the few that don’t seem to have hope on the horizon. Mike Brown, who just signed a five-year contract this summer, is predictably unable to assemble something that deserves to be called an offense. The incandescently talented Kyrie Irving is unhappy and his growth has stunted. The team just barely survived that whole Dion Waiters blowup without having to trade him. Anthony Bennett had his best game of the season against the Celtics on Saturday, which is to say he scored five points. The Cavs are trying to win now, but they’re moving toward that end like a Corolla with its back wheels trapped in a snowbank. I’m sure most of the roster would walk away if they could. Bynum has an out, and he’s using it.
3. The only reason Bynum was considered tradable in the first place — because it normally doesn’t put you in a position of leverage to try to deal a guy you just suspended — is because his contract is structured in a way that luxury tax teams might find appealing. So, the idea was the Bulls or Lakers might have wanted to make a deal with the Cavs in order to shave $6 million off their 2013-14 cap figure. But we can now assume that GM Chris Grant has called those teams and couldn’t work anything out, which means that Bynum will be a free agent sometime before the Jan. 7 deadline.
4. Details are fuzzy on whether or not Bynum is sick of basketball or sick of the Cavs. In November he expressed doubts about whether he still wanted to play in the NBA, and it’s obvious, when you watch him lope up and down the court, that every time he picks up his leg and sets it down, he’s experiencing some low-level pain. This is pain that he might play through, however, if he were in a better situation. There are rumors circulating that he would like to play for the Heat or the Clippers. This is where I should note that, attitude aside, Bynum didn’t put on an impressive audition this year. The Cavs have been demonstrably better with him off the court. Even if he wants to play with LeBron James or Chris Paul, I’m not sure either of those guys would want to play with him.
5. Bynum is a compelling figure, even if he’s lethargic and creaky on the court. On the one hand, it’s easy to feel sorry for him. He falls into the Sad Big Man phylum of players who could have been great if their bodies hadn’t let them down. On the other, he seems like a jerk, if not an overt one. For better or for worse, there’s not much room in team sports for depression, selfishness, indecision or whatever else Bynum is struggling with. Playing for a team means at least making a token effort to be part of a tossed-together thing that needs to function as much as it can like a unified entity in order to succeed. Bynum seems to have checked out on the Cavs because he doesn’t like his coach or his teammates or being on a bad team. Or playing the sport itself pains him and makes him miserable. These are understandable problems, but they’re ones he hasn’t addressed with a whit of professionalism. Bynum, because he was a great player before his career-altering knee injury, was allowed to frustrate his employer. Now coaches and GMs are considerably less tolerant, which is why he’s out of a job.