The Andrew Bynum contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers shows that NBA general managers may be more conservative than they should. That said, the Cavaliers could be setting themselves up for a tough decision a year from now.
The Cleveland Cavaliers emerged as the winners of the Andrew Bynum sweepstakes, securing the oft-injured center with a two-year, $24 million contract that only guarantees $6 million in the first year and includes a team option for the second. For Bynum to get the full $12 million in the first year, he has to meet a number of performance and health benchmarks.
This is obviously one of the more unique contracts you'll ever see a player sign. It's also one that says a lot about the state of both the Cavaliers and the other franchises in the league.
That Bynum, who may have been the league's top offensive center when last healthy in 2011-12, was available for only $6 million guaranteed is pretty stunning, even considering his health issues. That shows me a couple things:
Bynum's knees are in such bad shape that almost every team decided he wasn't worth any sort of risk.
NBA teams are remarkably risk-averse
Both of these things are probably true, but it's still a little surprising that nobody stepped up and offered more than the Cavaliers. The Dallas Mavericks, for example, are going nowhere with an aging Dirk Nowitzki playing out the last stage of his brilliant career. They decided to break up their championship team to chase free agents, only to be rejected by all the relevant ones. If they make no other moves, they're stuck in 35-40-win purgatory without much prospect for improving from within.
And yet, the Mavericks didn't even make Bynum any sort of offer, even though they had enough cap space to guarantee more than $6 million and could have cleared enough to get close to $12 million total by offloading Vince Carter, much less Shawn Marion. If Bynum flops, stays injured or is constantly shuffled in and out of the lineup, they wasted a year of Nowitzki's twilight ... but they're kind of doing that already. What did they really have to lose? Why not gamble on a potentially-elite center like Bynum?
Ironically, the Cavaliers may actually have a little more to lose than Dallas. Tom Ziller argued that there's no downside to the signing, which is true ... if the season ends in one of two extremes. If Bynum is completely healthy, that obviously makes it easy for Cleveland to keep him long term. If Bynum misses a second straight full season, the Cavaliers can move on with minimal risk and probably will get another high draft pick for their troubles.
But what happens if the actual result is somewhere between those two extremes? What if Bynum has a season like Andrew Bogut did in Golden State last year, where he plays about half the season, looks like 75 percent of himself for half the games he does play and only comes on at the very end of the year? What if it's the inverse -- he plays the beginning of the year well, then gets injured again around the All-Star break? Does Chris Grant pick up the second year of the team option? Does he negotiate a long-term extension? Does he let Bynum go?
Regardless of what happens, the Cavaliers should be able to create enough cap space to sign LeBron James, but that doesn't solve the long-term Bynum dilemma the Cavaliers could create for themselves. They have a year to decide whether Bynum is a part of their long-term future, and a season between the two extremes that most are presenting would make that a tough question to answer. Having Bynum certainly makes Cleveland's roster looks more attractive to LeBron, but there's a distinct possibility that Bynum's long-term future in the league is just as cloudy in 12 months as it is today. At that point, how does Grant value Bynum and the rest of his young core, which still needs opportunities to grow?
(There are also a number of other smaller factors to consider that add some risk to signing Bynum, which are spelled out in this excellent Fear the Sword piece).
All that said ... it's $6 million for a player that was the league's best center under 25 when last healthy. That's a deal you have to make if you're Cleveland. It just may set up for a tricky call a year down the line, depending on how Bynum plays.
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