Derrick Rose wasn’t the only former All-Star to miss all of last season, and while Andrew Bynum isn’t as far along as Chicago’s former MVP, the 7-footer took a step in the right direction toward recovery with his performance on Monday night.
Bynum, making his first start of the season for the Cavaliers, scored 11 points and grabbed six rebounds in 21 minutes in Cleveland’s 96-81 loss to the Bulls. Those three numbers were all season-highs for the 26-year-old trying to make his way back from multiple knee injuries and surgeries that have temporarily derailed his once-promising career.
“Every time he touched the ball on the block, something good happened. When they double teamed, he kicked the ball out for a 3,” head coach Mike Brown said of Bynum, who also handed out two assists. “I’d love to establish him down low, and it’s what we wanted to do tonight.”
In fact, it’s what Brown and the Cavaliers did right away. Bynum put in a layup over Joakim Noah on the Cavaliers’ second possession, and on the next trip down grabbed an offensive rebound and drew a foul, making both of his free throws to give the Cavs an early lead.
“I felt good today and I’m playing better and better,” Bynum said. “The more minutes I play, the more comfortable I’m going to get, and that’s kind of what’s happening.”
The 7-footer, known more the last six seasons for his towering presence and strength inside, showed off some finesse later in the first quarter, faking a right-handed hook shot and going up-and-under Noah for a layup and foul. The three-point play – which he finished – gave him seven points in five minutes, surpassing his season average of 5.2 points per game.
Still on a minutes limit as he increases his conditioning, Bynum sat out the entire second quarter. He re-entered in the third quarter, where he grabbed three more rebounds and scored four points – including a 15-footer – before sitting the final 13 minutes of the game.
Though Brown could have spaced Bynum’s minutes out to have him in down the stretch, Brown admitted Bynum’s lack of practice time as a new player means the rest of the team is still figuring out how to play with a player of his skill in the paint, different from Anderson Varejao’s versatile and more finesse game rather than a true low-block presence.
“It’s going to be a big adjustment for all of us, especially the other four guys,” point guard Kyrie Irving said. “And (Bynum), he takes up a lot of space, but we’ve just got to get used to him being out there, especially in the flow of the game, getting him going and then just playing off of him.”
Bynum signed a two-year contract in the offseason with the Cavaliers worth $24 million, though only $6 million was guaranteed and Cleveland gave itself a team option for the second year. It was a calculated risk for the Cavaliers after Bynum, then a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, had missed the entire 2012-13 season with various knee problems.
And earlier in the week Bynum made comments that he had been considering retirement because he wasn’t enjoying the game as much due to physical limitations. He’s still a work in progress and may never return to his prime – when he averaged at least 13 points and eight rebounds in five straight seasons – but nights like tonight prove he still has something to offer.
Bynum admitted practice will be important as he continues to work with his new teammates and form chemistry – Tristan Thompson, who started alongside Bynum in the backcourt, did have 14 points and 13 rebounds – but that his current state, though good for him individually, may be holding back the team as whole.
“I think it changes for the players that are around me, and that’s just something we’re going to have to go over in practice,” Bynum said. “I’m not too familiar with all the plays they put in; it’s a little bit different. We were a little bit stagnant today, especially with me being out there.”
For now, it’s about gradual improvements. Bynum said he still hasn’t been cleared to play back-to-back nights, and he isn’t sure if he’ll continue starting or if Brown will go back to Varejao, who had five points and six rebounds in 29 minutes off the bench.
But for Bynum, any time on the court is a plus, and if he’s able to maintain his health and play like he did tonight, he could help push the Cavaliers over the hump and into the playoffs for the first time since LeBron James’ departure.