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Bird rolling dice by signing player with troubled history


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Did Larry Bird just make one move too many?

Sure, the reigning NBA Executive of the Year has pulled all the right strings in rebuilding a moribund franchise into one of the best in the game.

Sure, he has done it with deftness and a keen understanding of the type of “team” that it takes to win. Sure, his latest move has significant upside, the kind that could make a subtle difference in a seven-game series with Miami and San Antonio.

But Andrew Bynum? Really?

The same guy whom the sub-.500 Cavaliers sent home for a game earlier this season for “conduct detrimental to the team”?

The same guy whom the Bulls took in a trade only so they could immediately waive him and get salary cap benefits?

The same guy who has only played two full seasons in an eight-year career because of degenerative knee issues and other injuries?

Yes, that’s the guy.

OK, Larry. Tell us why.

“We are obviously happy to have him join our team,” Pacers president of basketball operations Bird said in a release. “He gives us added size, he is a skilled big man and he has championship experience. With the minutes he gets, he should be a valuable addition.”

That’s nice press release material, but you can be sure it goes deeper.

The signing occurred only after a private meeting where Bird reportedly told Bynum what it takes to be a team-first player on the Pacers. The mercurial 7-foot-1 center must have answered the right way.

Otherwise, why introduce a potentially disruptive influence into one of the league’s best locker rooms? Why subtly tell the team that you don’t think it is good enough?

Clearly, the Pacers—owners of the NBA’s best record (36-10)—don’t need Bynum.

Maybe that is why David West and George Hill, two guys who were brought in and bought in, didn’t want to talk about the trade.

Maybe that is why All-Star Paul George dutiful said kind things about the deal laced with a dozen “ifs.”

Indeed, the most positive words came from backup center Ian Mahinmi, who essentially said he was happy for whatever Bird did to make the team better.

Mahinmi may not have to worry about losing his playing time, at least not anytime soon.

At best, Bynum is a project, not a quick-fix to something that isn’t even broken. It will take time for him to get back in basketball shape and luck that his oft-injured knees hold out.

Once game-ready, it is not clear that Bynum is the upgrade over Mahinmi that some suggest.

Bynum, 26, averaged 8.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 20 minutes per game over 24 appearances for the Cavaliers this season.

Statistics, even modest ones, can be misleading. The fact is that Cleveland was a better team when Bynum was not on the floor.

As Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver wrote: “Instead of recovering the full complement of his All-Star skills, though, Bynum struggled to keep up with the pace of the game and offered inconsistent production. His net rating of minus-11.8 is the lowest mark among Cavaliers who have played at least 400 minutes this season.”

What Bynum brings to the Pacers isn’t exactly clear. It is wistful thinking to believe that he is a game-changing talent, but the Pacers don’t need that. It also is wrong to think that Bynum even has to see the court for Indiana to win a title.

Certainly, even at Cavs-level production, he could make a contribution off the bench. His size and lane presence alone gives the Pacers additional fouls and matchup advantages in rugged playoff series.

Those are all “ifs” of the kind that George referred to — if Bynum comes in, if he works hard, and if he fits in.

The answer to whether this is a good deal — even at the “bargain” price of $1 million for the remainder of the season — lies more between Bynum’s ears and inside the Pacers’ locker room than on the court.

Here is the litmus test: When elder statesman and locker room enforcer West is asked about Bynum in March, will he still respond, “no comment?”

Bynum has been given another chance (this will be his fifth team since 2012). It is up to him to earn it. He must be the player that Bird sees, not the one we have all heard about.

Did Larry make one move too many?

In time, we will do the math. Is Bynum a case of subtraction by addition?

Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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