INDIANAPOLIS – Andrew Bynum mindlessly flipped a basketball from hand to hand as he spoke with reporters after his first shootaround as a member of the Indiana Pacers. Back and forth, back and forth, the sound of the ball slapping softly into his palms provided a backbeat to his words.
It served, too, as a metaphor for a casualness Bynum has brought to this season and the does-he-or-doesn’t-he concerns about his passion for the sport.
“People have their opinions,” Bynum said, keeping beat with the ball. “I don’t respond to it. I just go out and play.”
Sometimes, anyway. The 7-foot center, signed by Indiana last week as a backup big with low-risk, medium-reward possibility, has played 24 NBA games in the past 20 months. They all came with Cleveland through Dec. 26, after which Bynum was suspended for a team infraction and then traded in the deal that delivered Chicago’s Luol Deng to Cleveland. The Bulls cut Bynum to avoid the $6 million he would have been owed had he stayed, and his next destination was in play, but rather mildly so, until Pacers president Larry Bird met with him (and management ponied up a reported $1 million for what’s left of the season and postseason).
Much was said about Bynum’s desire, or lack thereof, to play in the NBA. The preps-to-pros lottery pick eight years ago was an All-Star in 2011-12, averaging 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds while shooting 55.8 percent. He was a valued contributor at age 21 to a Lakers title in 2009 and again in 2010.
Even though Bynum just once had played more than 65 games in a season, he was considered the centerpiece of the four-team trade that shuffled 12 players and six draft picks in August 2012. But he never played a lick for the 76ers, and things between Bynum and the Cavaliers, despite a reasonable contract and some highlights, turned sour. He averaged 8.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 20.0 minutes, shooting 41.9 percent. His true shooting percentage, after six years of 59.5 percent or better, was just 45 percent.
Now he’s in Indiana, joining a team that, at 38-10, had the NBA’s best record without him. Bynum’s task, frankly, seems to have something in common with the doctors with whom he’s become so familiar: First, do no harm.
“I think that’s good,” Bynum said after his orientation of light shooting and meet-and-greet with new teammates at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “Obviously when you have the staff they have here and the legend, Larry Bird, things run correctly. It’s a lot easier to fit in here and be positive when the entire atmosphere is already that way. Obviously there are some great locker-room leaders here, and that goes a long way.”
While the ambitions for Bynum are modest – back up Roy Hibbert and provide a little more scoring in the paint than defensive-minded Ian Mahinmi – key Pacers such as David West and Paul George have stressed the importance of Bynum blending with them, rather than the group accommodating him.
Signing him to keep him away from arch-rival Miami might be more legit than Bird lets on – “That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve heard,” Bird said – but the Pacers will brook no distractions or prima donnas.
George said he considers Bynum, assuming he’s healthy, to be an extension of Hibbert. The All-Star starter said he likes the move for Bynum’s sakes, as well as what it showed about Indiana’s front office.
“It’s real huge. I think both parties saw the positives out of this,” George said. “Him coming here, it was a chance for himself to be a part of something great here, get back into the flow of things basketball-wise. For us, it’s great to have a talent that huge come back and be a part of this team, and help us [try to] win a championship.”
Head coach Frank Vogel, who already has quelled Danny Granger‘s return-as-distraction worries, called his concerns about Bynum “very minor.” “We’ve got a strong culture here,” Vogel said. “We believe Andrew’s a good person, a good guy and a hard worker. And [we] think it’ll fit, think it’ll work.”
For Bynum, that means staying behind through All-Star Weekend to get into basketball shape while George, Hibbert, Vogel and the coaching staff all head to New Orleans. The big man said he had been “eating right” since being cut loose by Cleveland but didn’t sound as if he’d been a gym rat, or even in the gym at all.
Vogel said the timetable from there is vague. “Just put it at a few weeks,” the coach said. “We’ll come back from All-Star break and see how practices go over the next week or two after that before we start deciding if he’s ready. We want him to be comfortable.”
Motivated would be nice, too. The Pacers might be a better fit for Bynum because they’re accustomed to playing through Hibbert in ways that the Cavaliers struggled in their dalliance with a low-post big. But intangibles are going to play a part as well.
“We just talked about, that he is still hungry and he wants to work,” Vogel said of Bynum’s sales job on him. “And I believe that. He had a bad situation the last place he was at, and believe it will work here. I think we both need each other.”
Said Bynum: “The atmosphere over there [in Cleveland], it wasn’t one that just kind of promoted positive energy and wanting to come in and really … it was just tough, at the end of the day. There’s nothing really more to be said about it. They did everything they could for me. I went there I worked hard, got myself into shape. And that was a goal.”
The Pacers have their eyes on something way loftier than the Cavs. Bynum might not feel any urgency to make a market for himself this summer – he already has been paid more than $70 million in his career. But either he’ll help Indiana in the next few months or he’ll be moving again, employed thanks to someone else’s flirting with potential.
Flip, flop, back and forth, the basketball moved Friday, hand to hand.