On the three-year anniversary of The Decision, the Cavaliers welcomed Andrew Bynum to Cleveland Clinic Courts on Monday and showed him around. They looked at his knees, talked about his past and his future before finally presenting him with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
It just took him a few days to agree.
Bynum called the Cavaliers shortly after dinner Wednesday evening and accepted their offer, which guarantees him $6 million for next season and could escalate to $12 million with incentives. The Cavaliers hold a team option for $12 million guaranteed in 2014-15.
He is easily the biggest NBA free agent to ever declare he wanted to play in Cleveland, and if he is healthy, he immediately makes the Cavaliers a playoff contender again in the Eastern Conference.
But that “if” will loom over the organization until he steps on the court and proves he can again be the player he once was.
Bynum missed all of last season with problems to both knees. He had surgery on both knees in March. Asked if one knee was worse than the other, a Cavs executive replied Wednesday, “They’re both not good.”
It’s part of the reason the Cavs were able to get him on the cheap – and yes, $6 million guaranteed in NBA circles isn’t too bad for a 7-foot, 300-pound 25-year-old with an All-Star appearance and two championship rings.
The Philadelphia 76ers gave away an All-Star in Andre Iguodala and paid Bynum $17 million last season to watch him sit on the bench and play with his hair. He never played one minute for them.
Other teams with cap space were scared off by his knees. ESPN, the first to report Bynum chose the Cavaliers, also reported that neither the Atlanta Hawks nor the Dallas Mavericks gave Bynum a formal contract offer.
The Cavs credit the aggressiveness and willingness of owner Dan Gilert to take such a risk. The $6 million the Cavs are guaranteed to pay Bynum is the same amount they gave Luke Walton last season.
It’s a risk the Cavaliers felt they had to take, but it’s a risk nonetheless.
Bynum needs to lose weight and get back in basketball shape, a league source said, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the negotiations. His agent, David Lee, has insisted Bynum will be ready when training camp begins, but the Cavaliers aren’t so sure. They will bring him along slowly and feel they have the right stable of bigs (Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and Tyler Zeller) to protect Bynum from too many minutes too fast.
New coach Mike Brown played a huge role in Bynum’s return, according to a second league source. Bynum averaged career-best numbers of 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds while playing under Brown for the Los Angeles Lakers two years ago.
Regardless of how he fares in Cleveland, Bynum’s signing is a signal to the rest of the league the Cavaliers are serious about contending again. In the three years since LeBron James left, General Manager Chris Grant spent less than $7 million in free agency.
They have spent $30 million in guaranteed dollars this month to Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and now Bynum.
Add in No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, another first-round pick in Sergey Karasev and suddenly the Cavaliers roster will look drastically different than the team that finished last season 24-58 – the third-worst mark in the NBA.
The Cavaliers are out of cap space. Although only $6 million on Bynum’s deal is guaranteed, the entire $12 million for next season counts against the cap. They have 15 players under contract, but Chris Quinn, Kevin Jones and C.J. Miles are all on non-guaranteed deals. Miles is the likeliest to return, followed by Jones. Quinn will likely be released.
The Cavs will have a midlevel exception worth about $2.6 million to sign another player if they choose.
In the bigger picture, if Bynum returns to form, the Cavaliers have just given James something to consider as he enters the final season with the Miami Heat before he can again opt for free agency.
With a little finagling, the Cavaliers will have enough cap room next summer for Kyrie Irving, Bynum and a max contract.
James left Cleveland three years ago to form a Big Three. Three years later, on the anniversary of the night James left town, the Cavaliers introduced themselves to Andrew Bynum and showed him around. They are inching closer and closer to building a Big Three of their own.
But only if those knees are healthy.