HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Mirror, mirror on the trainers room wall, what NBA player’s comeback is most inspiring of all?
Derrick Rose is an obvious choice, but just five weeks after the Chicago Bulls’ first practice of training camp, Rose seems almost completely back, needing merely to shake some rust and sharpen his timing.
Greg Oden‘s crippled career is a tale that tugs at an NBA fan’s heartstrings – 82 games played in six seasons – but the more successful the big guy is, the more he’ll be helping the team that least needs it, the reigning “overdog” Miami Heat. Jumping on a bandwagon is one thing; jumping on a bandwagon that’s already in the championship parade is quite another. There are defensible reasons for the Oden-Heat fit – low expectations, little pressure – but some will see it as a front-running short cut to a ring.
Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook still aren’t back, period. Unhappiness in Minnesota with former president David Kahn overshadowed Kevin Love‘s ailments and lost season, to the point that many in that market feel the All-Star power forward “owes” the Timberwolves a stellar season now. Dwight Howard? His setback season in L.A. was largely self-inflicted – and people prefer to root for victims rather than perpetrators.
Then there is Andrew Bynum, gingerly making his way back onto NBA courts eight and 10 minutes at a time. A case can be made that, with the understandable exception of folks in Philadelphia, Bynum’s pending return to health and productivity would be the happiest of all.
Admittedly, the 7-footer who signed with Cleveland this summer after his DNP season on the 76ers’ inactive list irritated onlookers along the way. He displayed goofy haircuts on the bench. He bowled when he said he could not hoop. Bynum never seemed that bothered by his inability to repay Philadelphia for the chance it took on him, trading away Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic and more in the failed gamble.
But then Bynum chose the Cavaliers, a team mostly neglected by notable free agents. He accepted a contract that, by modern standards of entitlement, seems fair (two years, $24.8 million with only $6 million guaranteed). And he proceeded to bust his hump to made good on it, in a way never before associated with young Andrew. As Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal wrote:
Seven hours prior to tip-off [of Cleveland's season opener vs. Brooklyn], General Manager Chris Grant discreetly pulled Bynum into a private corner of Cleveland Clinic Courts, where Bynum presumably made one final plea to play.
He uprooted his life and moved to Cleveland within days of signing with the Cavaliers. The team doctors told him he could again be the NBA player he once was, but he needed to add muscle to his legs. With $18 million at stake this season and next, he showed up every day for three months and worked six hours a day, worked harder than anyone the Cavs’ training staff had ever seen.
Bynum played less than eight minutes, but it was his first NBA game in 527 days and left coach Mike Brown wanting more. Bynum was lobbying to keep playing, and Brown conceded he briefly considered before common sense prevailed. There are 81 more games to go. It’s not worth risking a blowout now. …
Bynum only had three points and three rebounds in eight minutes, but don’t let the numbers fool you. The Nets had to change their offensive approach when he was in the game. He closed off the entire lane to dribble penetration and turned the Nets into jump shooters after swatting Deron Williams’ shot off the court. He was also credited for a block on Reggie Evans, although on replay it appeared he didn’t even touch the ball. Still, he clearly altered the shot and forced Evans to bobble it away. Offensively he looked rusty, making just [one of five] shots.
“My timing is off right now, but that’s to be expected,” Bynum said. “I missed a long time out there. I feel like it’s going to come back. The more practice I have, the more 5-on-5 I have the better I’ll be.”
At Charlotte Friday, Bynum stuck around three minutes longer, finishing with five points and three boards in 10:46. He wasn’t expected to face Indiana’s Roy Hibbert Saturday night in Indianapolis, in keeping with a no back-to-backs policy at this point in his return. But that shouldn’t get in the way of nicely spaced games against Minnesota Monday, at Milwaukee Wednesday and (gulp) at Philadelphia Friday.
In fact, the Cavs face the 76ers in a home-and-home back-to-back set Friday and Saturday, with Bynum a large and easy target for fans at Wells Fargo Center. He has been a large and easy target for a lot of people, but if he stays this earnest and diligent – and the least controllable one, this healthy – as the season goes on, he’ll win over a lot of rooters. In 29 NBA markets, anyway.