By signing Andrew Bynum, the Cleveland Cavaliers have assembled one of the most intriguing frontcourts in the league. The group features a potential top-three center (Bynum), a number one overall pick (Anthony Bennett), a defensive standout (Anderson Varejao), another top five pick (Tristan Thompson) and another first rounder (Tyler Zeller). Yet incredibly, no one knows what the Cavs will get out of any of them.
Bynum comes with the obvious injury concerns, after he didn’t play a single game for Philadelphia following a trade that proved to be a disaster for all four teams involved. Varejao brings his own injury concerns after getting sidelined for the year in January. He hasn’t played more than 31 games since 2009-2010. And Bennett, Thompson and Zeller are all young players who have only shown flashes of potential. But the Cavs, in giving Bynum $6 million guaranteed, are gambling that he’ll play this season for a team that they hope would make the playoffs for the first time since LeBron James left. So if he is healthy, where does he stack up against Cleveland’s other bigs?
Well, if he’s healthy, he compares favorably to just about every center in the league. In fact, Bynum’s 2011-2012 nERD, our measurement of player efficiency, was 10.64, which was better than that of any of the centers who made the 2013 All-Star Game – a list that includes Kevin Garnett, Joakim Noah, Chris Bosh, Brook Lopez, Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, David Lee and Dwight Howard. Of course that was over a full year ago and there’s no way of knowing if he’ll return to that peak form, when he averaged 18.7 points, 11.8 rebound and 1.9 blocks per game.
If peak Bynum dwarfs those big-name big men, it’s pretty clear he’ll compare favorably to the bigs on the Cavs roster as well. Varejao has long been a favorite of League Pass watchers, thanks to his energy and defense, but he simply isn’t the efficient player Bynum is. His nERD last season was 2.77, which is roughly in line with his career numbers. (His best season by that metric was 2009-2010, when he put up a 3.77 – not all that far off last year’s pace.)
But Varejao has a game that would complement Bynum’s nicely, even though both are nominally centers. Where Bynum makes his living posting up on the low block, Varejao is an able pick-and-roll partner, thanks to his quick feet and soft hands. Defensively, Varejao is quicker than Bynum, and could be capable of extending away from the basket and guarding stretch fours.
Thompson put up net on/off court numbers similar to Varejao (The Cavs were .9 points per game better with Varejao on the court and .8 points better with Thompson) but individual metrics weren’t so kind to him. Our nERD wasn’t a big fan either, pegging him at -0.45, or just below an average player. This was actually a marked increase from 2011-2012, when he posted a -4.98 nERD. To be fair, efficiency metrics rarely look upon rookies and young players favorably: both LeBron James and Kevin Durant posted negative nERD scores their rookie years.
It sounds like the Cavs are going to try out Bennett at the 3 – good luck with that. It’s hard to think of a single NBA wing player who wouldn’t be able to immediately drive past Bennett, but who knows, maybe the Cavs will revolutionize the position by going bigger and slower. Zeller is the obvious casualty of the logjam in the frontcourt, but he never figured to be more than a fringe rotation player anyway. Given the injury history with Bynum and Varejao, Zeller may end up as the last man standing and back into some playing time.
Basically, the numbers tell us what we already know: at his peak, Andrew Bynum is one of the absolute best centers in the league. But after a year of ill-fated hair decisions and bowling nights, it’s impossible to know if he’s still got it. Cleveland isn’t exactly known for its luck in the sports department, so who knows, maybe this will finally be the year something goes right.