Indiana surprised everyone on Saturday when they signed free agent center Andrew Bynum, who was released by the Bulls after being traded away from an unpleasant situation in Cleveland. He was expected to land with the Heat or some other franchise with a need at center, but looking a little closer reveals a good fit for Bynum and a (small) need for the Pacers.
From Bynum’s perspective, the team won’t need to rely on his production to compete, removing a lot of the pressure to do more than he is currently capable of that the situation in Cleveland necessitated. He will be competing with Ian Mahinmi for time behind Roy Hibbert in the Pacers’ center rotation. This role affords him the opportunity to defend and rebound while picking his spots offensively against backups. It also won’t hurt that he’ll be in the Indiana locker room, which seems relatively calm, instead of the insanity of the Cavs’.
The Pacers are basically taking a low-risk gamble on upgrading the backup center spot. Mahinmi has been decent defensively, but his offense has left a lot to be desired. Take a look at how Bynum’s numbers compare to the Indiana centers’ per 36 minutes:
Bynum stacks up pretty well with Hibbert in terms of rebounding and assists, and his poor shooting numbers are comparable to Mahinmi’s, but on a much higher volume and against more starting units. He is also likely to benefit from more playing time as he continues to recover from his knee injury. Any offense from the backup center spot will be a big step forward. The primary function of Indiana’s centers isn’t offense, it’s anchoring the defense, so additional scoring would just be icing on the cake.
It’s on defense that Bynum will be a perfect fit for the Pacers’ system. Frank Vogel has tailored his defense to play to the strengths of the players he has. That has meant keeping Hibbert, one of the slower players in the league, near the basket at all times to snuff out drives to the basket and allow the rest of the defense to stay at home on the perimeter.
You can see this principle at work in this play against the Clippers, where Hibbert hangs back in the middle of the paint while the offense is setting up, even though his man (DeAndre Jordan, stationed at the right elbow) is nowhere near him:
Hibbert has to be aware of Jordan enough to keep him from slipping to the basket or getting strong post position, but he is mainly focused on the ball and preventing an easy path to the basket for any driving offensive player.
The Pacers treat pick and rolls the same way – here we see Hibbert facing a James Harden–Dwight Howard high pick and roll. He goes so far as the top of the paint before stopping and waiting for a drive:
Neither Howard nor Jordan shoots well outside of the paint, but even against bigs who can shoot the Pacers prefer to keep their centers in the paint unless absolutely forced to do otherwise.
All of this will help Bynum a ton, as his mobility has been limited this season following his knee issues. One thing he does do well is stop opponents from scoring at the rim. According to the player tracking data on stats.nba.com, Bynum has allowed opponents to score on only 37.6% of attempts at the rim when he is near the play. That stat alone should scare the rest of the league, as it is better than the much-hyped number Hibbert has put up this season.
Bynum won’t be asked to jump out 25 feet on picks where he can’t possibly recover, and he will spend almost all of his time on the defensive end hammering drivers. The current version of Bynum was made for this role. He will provide insurance against Hibbert getting into foul trouble (Hibbert is averaging 3.4 fouls per game and has fouled out 4 times) while allowing the Pacers to stick to their defensive principles for 48 minutes every night. If he can round out his offensive game in the process Indiana will be ecstatic, but even if he doesn’t this is a great value pick up that makes a lot more sense than it may have seemed at first glance.