Signing free agent center Andrew Bynum was a move that the Indiana Pacers made in hopes to see positive results in May and June. It’s likely safe to exclude April from that list, as the Eastern Conference has given little indication that lower seeded teams will terrorize a historically profound defense.
While the former All-Star won’t join the Pacers until next week and won’t see the hardwood for several after that, the feeling around Indianapolis is that the Pacers organization has done it’s best job in forming a roster that can dethrone the Miami Heat (and suppress the Brooklyn Nets).
If you’re a member of the roster that has worked their tails off for a 36-10 record and continues fighting for every possible advantage … why wouldn’t you be overly thrilled about ameliorating the team?
It just goes to show, Bynum’s recent history has affected the views of his NBA peers/opponents.
The morning of the signing, Feb. 1, Indiana had a game to prepare for. As the Pacers engaged in the morning shootaround at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the players already knew what was coming — endless questions about their new backup center.
The vibe in West’s attitude was along the lines of “we’re not talking about it,” which certainly concerned many. Being the 11-year veteran for this Indiana team, the thought was that he would have strong feelings toward moves that affected his chances at a title. Whether he says it was just his current mood or not, those hidden feelings on the issue became exposed.
Superstar Paul George offered the best analysis on the signing, giving his take on both sides of the issue.
“You can’t pass up on a huge talent like that and I expect him to be able to help us if he comes in with an attitude to buy into our program,” George stated during Saturday’s shootaround.”
“He’ll have to prove a lot to himself, whether he wants to play or not. If he comes in ready to go, ready to put in the work, really buying into our program, we have no problem being there for him.”
Throughout the saga we experienced when Bynum joined the Philadelphia 76ers and then the Cleveland Cavaliers, his on-court performance has always been second to his off-the-court issues. Most recently being suspended by Cleveland for “conduct detrimental to the team,” it’s quite understandable that guys are now wary of how he’s going to affect their team.
However, can you truly blame two of the team’s leaders (George and West) for demonstrating such concern? Along with the rest of the players that have been together through the stepping stones of knocking on Miami’s door, they have been two of the biggest reasons Indiana has revamped their professional basketball reputation and drawn in larger media coverage each year.
George has taken that next step towards sheer greatness with his two-way basketball play style, and appears to be on his way to challenging Reggie Miller as the greatest to ever wear the navy and gold. West has supplied the Pacers with an experienced, classy body in the frontcourt that is probably hungrier than any current player for a Larry O’Brien trophy. A logical take would be that these two are somewhat driven to believe Bynum could have too much of an immature side to fit within their system.
News flash: Bynum has played six quality seasons as a starting center in one of the most disciplined, structured offenses — Tex Winter’s triangle offense — and been under the wing of the greatest coach to walk an NBA floor, Phil Jackson. In my most honest approach, as well as to Bynum’s support, it doesn’t get much greater than that in terms of experience.
He has won two NBA titles in seasons where he averaged 14.3 points, 8 rebounds per game on 56 percent shooting (2008-09) and 15 points, 8.3 rebounds on 57 percent shooting (2009-10). Let’s not overlook his All-Star season neither, in which he became a defensive-minded player and recorded a triple double (points, rebounds, blocks) in the 2011-12 postseason against the Denver Nuggets.
The attitude shouldn’t be problematic when he’s placed with another respected coaching staff that believes in team unity over anything. Members of the Pacers should understand that if President Larry Bird is showing just the slightest trust in Bynum, his attitude may not be a huge concern. At dinner in a local Indianapolis steakhouse, Bird laid all the cards out on the table while conversing with Bynum and Head Coach Frank Vogel. Bird said that he flat-out explained to the 7’1″ center “how things are done around here.”
When you’re a 26-year-old that has a bit of a tainted reputation, having that proper business back-and-forth with a NBA legend can snap you back into the mentality you used to have, which was just playing dominant basketball.
It goes a bit further than just the attitude aspect of things, needless to say.
Bynum’s production on the court has been mediocre since returning from his year off in Philadelphia. In 24 games played with the Cavaliers (19 of them being starts), Bynum did average just 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, while playing 20 minutes per game and shooting a whopping 41.9 percent from the field. In fact, it was the least efficient stretch of his career since his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
On the other hand, there were five instances this season in which Bynum posted at least 15 points. Everything you have seen from Bynum since he was in purple and gold, however, may have to be taken with a grain of salt. He was never in a potent offensive system in Cleveland, a team that ranks 25th in points scored and 29th in assists per game. Ball movement and organizational offense are terms you haven’t been able to associate with the Cavaliers since their emperor hit the road for warmer weather in 2010.
**Let me know if this type of production in small spurts wouldn’t make Indiana frightening:
Bird wasn’t about to hide his reasoning on why taking a risk on Bynum was necessary.
“We’ve got protection for Roy (Hibbert) and Ian (Mahinmi) and we’ll see how it works out,” Bird told the media. “I think it’s a great upside for us, we don’t do anything that we don’t think is going to help us and I think this is going to help us.”
The very candid Bird has a valid point: Since the core of George, West, Hibbert, Danny Granger, and George Hill were formed together, when have the Pacers executed on a trade/signing that made zero sense? Raise that a step further: When has Indiana pulled the trigger on something that necessarily hurt their chances? The trade with Phoenix to dump off Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee and gain Luis Scola was a move that made both teams more threatening.
Out of the entire roster, the man this signing most affects is none other than Ian Mahinmi, the six-year French backup that surely has his moments on the defensive end of the floor.
One of the facts we simply can’t be blind to, however, is that Mahinmi is the furthest thing from an offensive force when he’s on the floor. This season, Mahinmi has averaged just 3 points per game on 41.7 percent field goal efficiency while playing 15.9 minutes per night. Indiana rarely allows him to operate with the ball, as majority of his points result from him using his quicker, more athletic body to hustle down rebounds and loose balls. That’s fantastic abilities that coaches simply can’t teach … but it’s not a 7-foot, 285 pound body that can torment defenses in post-ups.
After shootaround on Saturday, Mahinmi was asked about what the Bynum signing means for him as the current primary backup.
“My only concern is for the team,” Mahinmi stated. “Whatever makes us better as long as we keep winning and we keep taking steps toward the championship, I’m fine with that.”
Whether or not Coach Vogel had a long discussion with Mahinmi and influenced his statements, it’s hard to imagine Mahinmi isn’t battling emotions on the inside. He has played a monumental defensive role on the Pacers’ teams that have been on the verge of reaching the NBA Finals. Now, he’s going to lose his spot in the rotation to a guy that can’t seem to stay on a roster without causing controversy.
Starting center, Roy Hibbert, was among the many that felt strong about Mahinmi’s situation. When the shootaround concluded, Hibbert placed his arm around Mahinmi and engaged in small talk with his backup that you can only imagine was full of positive and heartfelt thoughts from a teammate, and friend.
Point guard, George Hill, sort of surprised everyone when he took the same approach as West.
“Ask Frank (Vogel),” Hill repeated, as he and West were determined to exit for the locker room. “He (West) said he don’t want to talk about it. Ask Frank.”
As an enthusiast of the game, I can’t recall any on-court or personal spats West and Bynum were a part of since Bynum entered the league in 2005. Perhaps it’s becoming believable that West just feels this dedicated on team camaraderie. And if that’s the honest reason for the dry responses on his newest teammate, it’s obviously admirable. Most of the people in this world, including myself, take pride in a product they’ve contributed to … isn’t that all West is doing when it comes to these East-leading Pacers?
Another veteran on the team — one that doesn’t get much attention as a bench asset — believes that Indiana isn’t the type of organization to make ill-advised decisions. Rasual Butler, who has bounced around with six NBA squads, once informed Indianapolis Star’s Candace Buckner that the team does their homework:
In order to be a Pacer, you have to fit a certain criteria,” Butler once said. “So they do background checks, they call other teams. For me to be here says a lot about the things that they’ve heard from prior teams.”
Maybe I’m a little too high on Bynum’s potential due to being a lifelong supporter and devotee of the Lakers, or perhaps it’s just too easy to trust the Hall of Fame Celtic (Bird) and his decisions. But when a team atop their conference believes they made a very low-risk deal ($1 million contract for this season only) that will help their case against the defending champions, I’m one that feels the players need to fully support the decision.
After the 97-96 victory over Brooklyn on Saturday evening, West did add a short take on his new teammate. The lasting remarks should be the basis of the Bynum saga for the rest of the season and playoff run:
“We’re not going to make this about him,” West told reporters. “We’re going to make this about the Pacers.”
From a financial standpoint, Indiana played a masterful card with this deal. Before even considering Bynum to be a long-term option, it’s worth giving him the rest of this season (which will begin well after the All-Star break for Bynum) as a chance to illustrate why Paul George still considers him “one of the top centers in this league.”
While the fans hope that George’s emergence as a quiet MVP candidate can lift them to their first NBA Finals since 2000, Indiana is the team that knows it takes a collective, team effort.
The strongest evidence of George’s concern was expressed as he finished with: “Whether he wants to stay committed to us is … a big gamble on our behalf.”
It’s time to realize that corrupting the tightest NBA locker room isn’t going to be done by signing one free agent for bench minutes.
Even if George is correct, it might just take a “gamble” to get through the firepower Pat Riley occupies in South Beach.