When Andrew Bynum signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer, the idea in most corners seemed to be that if he was healthy, the team was going to get one of the best centers in the NBA. It wasn't a slam dunk. Conrad wrote about the risks of signing Bynum, even if he did prove healthy, and I wondered about cheaper and more dependable options like Samuel Dalembert (who hasn't been particularly good this season, admittedly).
Still, I don't think many of us expected Bynum to be both healthy and a terrible basketball player. It's a bit sad. Bynum was a world class talent who has had debilitating knee issues undercut that promise for much of his basketball career. Watching him struggle to get up and down the court and fail to get the lift needed even for baby hook shots around the rim wasn't fun.
And it wasn't good for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Bynum played 24 games, averaging just over 20 minutes a night. The Cavs scored an abysmal 93 points per 100 possessions and gave up 104.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. Even if Bynum had been a model citizen in the Cavs locker room it might have been time to try and cut bait. He wasn't, and the Cavs made a deal to acquire Luol Deng.
His departure has coincided with All-Star level play from Anderson Varejao, and improved production from Tristan Thompson. Let's start with Varejao, who is making a late bid to be considered as a reserve All-Star for the Eastern Conference. Varejao has been good all season (his WS/48 minutes have led the Cavs all year), but he has really taken off of late. When Bynum was suspended, Varejao was averaging 7.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2 assists per game in 28.7 minutes.
While he was being productive, his usage rate of 13.2% was paltry. Given his skill passing the ball and his status as the Cavaliers only big who can consistently spread the floor by shooting from midrange, this was basically inexcusable. Of NBA players who have taken 100 midrange jumpers this season, Anderson Varejao is shooting with the 2nd best percentage in the entire league!
While Varejao told me that he doesn't think defenses are respecting his shot yet, one figures this will have to change soon. And I can't help but point out this article that I wrote before the season stressing the importance of Varejao's midrange shooting.
His defensive rebounding percentage was a good 23.9%. The Cavs were giving up 1.9 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor than they were with him off the floor.
Since Bynum left, Varejao has seen an uptick in virtually every meaningful statistic, and it isn't simply a function of getting more minutes. In 13 games the Cavaliers have five wins and eight losses, but outscore opponents by 2.5 points per 100 possessions in the 32.8 minutes of action Varejao has seen on a nightly basis. He has averaged of 10.6 points, 14.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists. His passing, in particular, has helped lift the Cavaliers offense from "dreadful" to "hey, we might have something here."
Next to Varejao, Thompson's uptick in efficiency and production feels a little more understated. Thompson remains maddeningly inconsistent. For the year, his blocks, rebounding, assists and field goal percentage are down from last season. And yet, he remains capable of stringing together impressive stretches of play. Where the 22 year old's career is going, I don't know. If he can sustain the uptick in true shooting and field goal percentage while continuing to improve his range, his value to the Cavs will increase.
Looking for a downside for the Cavs since Bynum left? Dion Waiters probably isn't happy about it. He is spending a lot less time with Varejao on the court, and is really struggling. Whereas he clearly has chemistry with Varejao, there have been a few episodes of clear miscommunication with Tyler Zeller.
It isn't a huge sample, and Waiters has helped the team in ways that go beyond the box score of late, but hopefully Waiters can improve moving forward. If anything, this helps to show how valuable Varejao has been all season.
There remains a lot of season left; the Cavaliers are exactly halfway through their schedule. Thompson and Varejao are at very different points of their careers, but at the moment seem to be complimenting each other quite well. The Cavaliers playoff hopes are in large part dependent on them keeping it up.
Stats used courtesy of nba.com/stats