Trade Candidate: Andrew Bynum

It may seem like a lifetime ago, but we’re less than 18 months removed from discussions about whether Andrew Bynum would be the third maximum-salary player in 2013 free agency, alongside Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Coming off an All-Star 2011/12 season in Los Angeles, the young center appeared to have finally put it all together, and was the main outgoing piece in a blockbuster four-team deal that landed the Lakers the only center in the NBA (Howard) believed to be better than Bynum.

Of course, after a nightmarish lost season in Philadelphia, Bynum’s stock plummeted, and the Cavaliers certainly didn’t have to pay him the maximum salary in free agency last summer. In fact, the team only had to guarantee him $6MM. The rest of his $12.25MM salary for 2013/14 and the entirety of his $12.54MM salary for 2014/15 are non-guaranteed.

That contract is exactly what makes Bynum such an interesting trade candidate today. If he were simply on the books for a guaranteed $12MM+ salary already, he’d likely be drawing little interest, even though that second season essentially amounts to a team option. After all, in today’s NBA, expiring contracts aren’t quite the tantalizing trade chips they once were, since most players are signing shorter-team deals, and only a handful of teams have tied up their cap for multiple years down the road. But Bynum’s contract represents a different kind of expiring deal. It’s one that will likely expire next week, rather than at season’s end, since he’s expected to be waived on Tuesday, prior to the NBA’s contract guarantee deadline.

Before we get into which teams might be interested in acquiring Bynum only to release him, it’s worth considering whether there are clubs who may simply want to take a half-season flier on the former All-Star. He’s been healthy enough to appear in 24 games so far this season, and it’s possible he’d fit in better on another roster. By January 7th, Cleveland will have paid about $5MM about Bynum’s salary, so it’s not entirely out of the question that another team would be willing to eat the remaining $7MM or so to gamble on the 26-year-old’s upside.

Still, while that’s a plausible scenario, it’s not a likely one. Considering Bynum will probably be released anyway, trading for him to keep him wouldn’t make much sense, since he could be available as a free agent for a much cheaper price.

Bynum’s true value as a trade chip would come in a deal that allows a taxpaying team to reduce its bill or perhaps even move entirely out of tax territory. That’s why the Lakers and Bulls have been cited as potential fits. Neither team looks anything like a title contender, so it would make sense for those clubs to trade an expensive veteran for Bynum to cut costs.

Let’s look at the Bulls first. In a hypothetical trade for Bynum, Chicago would want to move Carlos Boozer and his multiyear deal, while Cleveland would rather get its hands on Luol Deng and his expiring contract. The principle is the same in both cases though: Bynum’s $12.25MM salary could be swapped straight up for Deng ($14.28MM) or Boozer ($15.3MM). Then, if the Bulls waived Bynum by next Tuesday, he’d only count as $6MM against their books, saving the team in excess of $8MM, plus tax penalties. Because Bynum’s full salary counts in a trade for salary-matching purposes, his deal (and Hedo Turkoglu‘s, which is similarly structured) is optimal for shedding payroll. The Lakers could make a similar move with Pau Gasol, though he couldn’t be dealt straight-up for Bynum.

While this sort of move may make sense on paper for the Lakers or Bulls, both teams appear reluctant to dive in, for a variety of reasons. The word “rebuild” is foreign to the Lakers, and the Bulls came into the season with championship aspirations, so it would take a major philosophical shift for either club to make a move for the sole purpose of saving money and bottoming out. It would also make Gasol or Deng very unlikely to return to the Lakers or Bulls, respectively, in the summer of 2014, since their current teams would no longer hold their Bird rights. The Bulls have expressed a desire to re-sign Deng, and the Lakers haven’t ruled out the possibility of retaining Pau.

The Lakers and Bulls aren’t the only teams that could line up with the Cavs as potential trade partners. Acquiring Bynum to cut him could make some sense for the Celtics, Hawks, and Grizzlies, among other teams. But I’d imagine none of those clubs would be willing to give up a productive player for Bynum without getting at least one other piece from Cleveland in the deal. The Cavs have a handful of movable assets, including young players and future draft picks, so packaging one or more of them with Bynum would allow Cleveland’s trade partner to show its fans that the move wasn’t completely financially motivated.

In essence then, although Bynum represents a fascinating trade chip, he’s one that will likely have to be paired with another piece to be moved by Tuesday. Whether the Cavs are willing to include that second piece will likely depend on how committed the franchise is to making a playoff push this season. If that postseason berth remains the franchise’s top priority, we should expect Cleveland to move Bynum for a productive veteran. If the long-term plan is still the primary focus, then the Cavs could simply cut Bynum and pocket the savings themselves.

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