If you thought that 2012 was one crazy year in the world of Cleveland Sports, 2013 proved that there is rarely a dull moment. There were good times and bad, hirings and firings, wins and losses, and appearances in postseasons and courtrooms. As the year comes to a close, like we have done the last five years, WFNY will take a look at what we view to be the 10 biggest sports stories to grace our local sports scene over the last 12 months. Each day through the rest of the year, we will be counting down from ten to one. Do enjoy.
Opening Day is a storied tradition in sports. More religiously observed in baseball, yet still vibrant in the other major sports, there’s something special and holy about each team having a blank canvas for the back-and-forth outcomes likely to follow during the coming season. Anything is possible. Chaos can occur. Miracles could happen. And even Andrew Bynum might play.
Bynum, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ major offseason splash of 2013, faced little expectations from fans for this current calendar year. After a disastrous year-plus that culminated in zero minutes of playing time for the Philadelphia 76ers, there could be no fan trust in his fading health going forward. If he showed up in uniform at all within the first month, that alone might be enough for fans. If he somehow was playing regular minutes by the All-Star Break, then that’d be just fine.
On Oct. 30, the Wine & Gold were set to begin the season against the recharged Brooklyn Nets on Opening Day at The Q. Deservedly, there was relatively little confidence for what the on-court product might be that night, with the Cavs mired in three years of abysmal play and the Nets spending their way into conversations of the NBA’s elite teams. But the records were even. Hope was in the air. And The Q would still be rocking.
As tip-off approached, reports started spreading on social media: Andrew Bynum, just three days following his 26th birthday, might actually receive playing time. #BYNUMWATCH was at full throttle. The big man was set to be in a Cavaliers uniform. He was possibly going to see the basketball court, something he hadn’t done competitively since Mike Brown’s Los Angeles Lakers were knocked out of the 2012 playoffs.
When looking at the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise post-LeBron James, there perhaps was no more game-changing moment than the July signing of the former LA star center. The agreement represented a shift in the paradigm for the woeful Cavs that stunk up the NBA for three straight years. Now, they attract talent not only through the draft. Now, they mean business. Now, they compete for the playoffs.
Bynum is a dominant pure center, one of the last of a dying breed in the NBA. There’s relatively little finesse in his game. He’s an elite post scorer, proficient at putting the ball on the basket in the restricted area and not anywhere else. He’s a bruising rebounder and low-post defender, as his size and reach give him a chance against anyone else down on the block.
He was LA’s No. 10 overall pick in 2005, the last year when high school players were eligible for the draft. As a youngster, he fought his way into his dominant form and worked his way up the Lakers rotation. Is his third season, he broke out by averaging 13 and 10, albeit only in 35 games. You see, that’s been the issue for Bynum’s entire career: staying on the court. He’s never played more than 65 games or 2,150 minutes in an NBA season.
That’s what made his Opening Day participation an afterthought. It was reported for weeks that he’d be unlikely to play. That he might not be in playing shape for several weeks, despite how good he might have looked in preseason warmups. But then there was the confirmation: At 6:05 p.m., the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd tweeted that Bynum was active and would play. Pandemonium ensued.
Such jubilation would hit a precipice when Bynum checked into the ballgame for the first time as a Cavalier with the team trailing by six and 3:40 left in the first quarter. When he checked out of the game eight minutes of playing time later, the home team was up two, he had registered two blocks, two assists, three rebounds, a made field goal and a free throw, and the crowd was still going wild. They sensed that this year was different. That with Bynum, anything was possible.
Many never wanted to take the risk on Bynum. The sensed the negatives, however small, including with the financial workings of the deal. Long-term, the team did maintain its financial flexibility by only guaranteeing $6 million up front and putting two unique out-clauses in his contract. If he remained on the roster on January 7, 2014, he’d be owed his full $12.25 million for this season. If he remained on the roster on July 10, 2014, he’d receive a guaranteed $12.54 million deal for next season.
The first such deadline is just over two weeks away. And much to the distraught of Sixers blogger and SB Nation’s Michael Levin, Bynum is playing and doing well enough that there should be no consideration of his failure and departure just yet. The conversation over this summer’s cap space and his long-term future with the club remain in doubt for now. But that will be the bigger question.
As 2013 winds down, 26-year-old Cavs center Andrew Bynum is on a tear. He’s playing near to the ways of his old All-Star self. Over the last eight games — perhaps the best such stretch in the post-LeBron era for Cavaliers basketball — he’s averaging 11.8 points and 7.4 rebounds in 23.5 minutes. When the Cavs guards can feed him the ball consistently, he’s productive in his trademark way. It’s difficult to replace or match up against his physical frame in the post.
Imagine how the season would be unwinding if Bynum took his talents to a different city. The pressure would be mounting on Kyrie Irving at 21 years old to lead a team to the playoffs. Tristan Thompson, 22, would be thrust into a heavier role. Anthony Bennett, 20, would be under even more scrutiny for his historically terrible start. Sure, the Cavs could have landed another pure center such as Omer Asik, but that would cost major future assets besides just available cap money. So this likely could have been a disastrous start to the Cavs season with multiple heads rolling already.
Only 24 games into the season, the biggest difference maker has been the player most infamous for a lackadaisical three-point attempt and a cheap-shot playoff clothesline. There have been no incidents, no injuries, no major worries. There was the brief retirement consideration as he struggled with his new physical state, but that is long gone now. He’s contributing at a high level and playing consistent minutes unlike what anyone might have predicted.
Yet no matter how Bynum’s Cleveland story ends, we’ll always have Opening Day. We’ll always have that memory of a 7-foot Cleveland star walking onto the basketball court and shocking the world. There’s nothing anyone can do to take that away from all of us.