Pacers Take a Chance on Bynum

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

February 1, 2014

Some NBA transactions are for the future. Some are for now. And some are for right now.

The Pacers' signing of Andrew Bynum on Saturday wasn't just a win-now move, it was a move intended to enhance the team's chance of winning the NBA championship – this season. The 7-foot center – a former All-Star but also suspended earlier this season by Cleveland – isn't expected to be ready for game action for a few weeks. He will, however, be counted upon heavily to contribute to the team's playoff run, perhaps providing a nudge that pushes it over the top.

“I ain't worried about next year,” team president Larry Bird said following the Pacers' game-day shootaround on Saturday. “We're in the now. We're going to do everything we can to go as far as we possibly can.”

Bynum flew to Indianapolis from Cleveland on Friday and had dinner with Pacers officials that evening, including Bird and coach Frank Vogel. Asked the primary impression Bynum made at the gathering, Vogel said “overall enthusiasm.”

“He knows this is the right place for him,” Vogel said. “We believe we're the right place for him, also. He expressed that he wants to fit in, which is the word we like to hear around here with our team-first mentality.”

Bynum brings obvious size and talent, and much-reported baggage. Drafted out of high school in 2005 with the 10th pick in the draft by the Lakers, he made steady progress that peaked in the 2011-12 season, when he averaged 18.7 points on 56 percent shooting, and 11.8 rebounds.

He was traded to Philadelphia for the following season, but sat out the season with various knee problems. He had arthroscopic surgery on both knees on March 19, ending his season officially. He signed a two-year, $25 million contract with Cleveland last summer, but appeared in just 24 games, averaging 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds. He was suspended for conduct deterimental to the team on Dec. 28, then traded to Chicago on Jan. 7. The Bulls then released him in a salary-cap move designed to reduce the team's luxury tax exposure.

So, will he fit with the Pacers, a team known for its chemistry on the court and in the locker room?

“We hope so,” said Paul George, the Pacers' All-Star starter. “We hope the second he walks into our locker room everybody welcomes him with open arms and he feels the chemistry of the team.

“We're a close group here. We're all on the same page. We'll know right off the bat if he's going to be committed to us or not.”

George said a couple of the players were consulted by management about the acquisition. He endorsed the move, calling Bynum “one of the top centers in the league.”

Bird said he wasn't concerned with Bynum's reputation.

“You hear all the negativity,” Bird said. “I never judge a person (based on what others say). I like to find out on my own. He's big, he can help us and that's all that matters.

“The way these guys roll around here, they can handle themselves. That never really entered my mind. They're big boys. If Andrew can come in here and help them, it will be much appreciated.”

Bird scoffed at the notion that the Pacers might be signing Bynum merely to keep him away from Miami or other contending teams.

“We don't have the money to throw around and let them sit on our bench,” he said. “That's about the dumbest thing I've ever heard.”

Bynum represents a low-risk, high-reward acquisition for the Pacers. If he is not healthy enough to contribute much, or becomes a fly in the ointment of team chemistry, he can be released with minimal financial sacrifice. The Pacers reportedly will pay him $523,437 the rest of the season. The Bulls will pay him $6 million.

Bird, however, is focused on the upside. He could potentially be the difference between winning a championship and falling short. He's a better offensive player than starter Roy Hibbert, and automatically becomes the best backup center in the league, if healthy. He also could stand as the counterpoint to Miami's Greg Oden, who has shown promise in limited time with the Heat.

There's not much to lose, and so much to gain. Ultimately, it's like George said:

“You can't pass up on a huge talent like that.”

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