Will Bynum arrived in Detroit on borrowed time. He was undrafted in 2005 after a fine college career at Georgia Tech, had a brief and mostly ineffectual stint with the Warriors the next season, and then made the roster in 2008, at the age of 26. There was no sense that the job would last as long as it has.
His job was to play behind Chauncey Billups, who was in turn eventually traded shortly thereafter for Allen Iverson. Then Bynum played behind Rodney Stuckey, who was at that time discussed as a franchise savior. The operative word is "behind." Bynum was, through all those changes, a man with a very well-defined and fairly parlous role: a hard-working third string guard, whose best hope to be something more involved getting enough minutes in Detroit’s crowded backcourt to justify another team taking a chance on him. Bynum seemed destined to live the life of most NBA end-of-benchers—earning a (very good) living on a year-to-year basis until that became impossible, which was at least easier than having to search for similar opportunities overseas. Not a bad lot, as jobs go, but it seemed very plainly to be the one Bynum was stuck with.
The problem for the Pistons, however, was that Bynum continually out-performed the more highly regarded players ahead of him on the depth chart. He shot 46 percent, better than both Stuckey and Iverson. He averaged seven assists per 36 minutes, better than both Stuckey and Iverson. He averaged 18.4 points per 36 minutes, better than both Stuckey and Iverson.
The following season, Iverson was out of the picture—God chose Memphis, however briefly—but the backcourt rotation was no less crowded. Stuckey, the promising young player who convinced Joe Dumars that Billups was surplus to the team's demands, was still entrenched as the starter. Richard Hamilton signed an expensive extension and Ben Gordon was brought in as an even more expensive free agent. Once again, though, Bynum shot better than all three, picked up more assists per 36 minutes than all three and he turned the ball over less than Gordon and Hamilton. This was not necessarily good news for the Pistons, but it suggested that Will Bynum's NBA career might be notably better than initially expected. This was a few years ago, now.
Bynum never played quite well enough in those first two seasons with the Pistons to suggest he was a starting-caliber NBA point guard. But he did things that stood out on a team full of players who underperformed their contracts or didn’t always play hard in games. That is, Bynum gave maximum effort at all times, and his combination of his explosive athleticism and diminutive stature made him capable of breathtaking plays that no other Piston could make.
When Bynum entered free agency, the Pistons didn’t really have a place for him, and didn't really have space in the budget for another backcourt player, either. But, for a team desperately trying to re-connect with the toughness that won every championship banner in the rafters, the Pistons also couldn’t afford to let go of the one player—a blue-collar NBA jobber, Chicago-born—who always seemed to give maximum effort. And so Bynum earned some professional stability for the first time in his career, signing a three year/$9.75 million contract in 2010 despite not quite having a defined backcourt role. It's to Bynum's credit that he has played exactly the same way since getting rich as he did when he was still a big trade away from getting cut. Bynum still works and acts like an end of bench guy who could lose his job at any second, not an established NBA reserve with a guaranteed deal. It is, again, to his credit.
But to call Bynum’s production inconsistent since he signed that deal doesn’t do justice to how wildly his production fluctuated. He struggled with injuries that threatened his athleticism, and was yanked in and out of the rotation with little explanation by a roiling, baffled collection of over-their-head coaches. After the Pistons gave up hope that Stuckey was a future All-Star point guard, Bynum’s path to more minutes was obstructed again when the team brought in another raw, low-efficiency, inconsistent hybrid guard in Brandon Knight. They are now in year two of trying to make him a true point guard. They acquired Jose Calderon, who actually is a point guard, just in case.
As Bynum entered the final year of his contract this season, his situation looked bleaker than ever. The team was committed to Knight, a lottery pick in 2011, as its point guard of the future. Stuckey had moved into a reserve role as a combo guard. Calderon was dropped into the mix around the trade deadline. And so, in his fifth season with the franchise, and despite providing some of the team’s greatest highlights over that span—including a 20-assist game in 2010 and dynamically playing all 48 minutes in the famous ‘mutiny game’ during which several Pistons were benched after boycotting a shootaround in Philadelphia—Bynum was arguably in as dicey a situation as any he had previously faced. He was one of the team’s hardest working players, and still valuable. But due to the NBA's salary cap and the Pistons' personnel travails, Bynum's greatest value might have been his expiring contract. Bynum was rich, but he was also back where he started.
A month into the season, he was also playing as poorly as he ever has, even leading Sean Corp of Detroit Bad Boys to write a comprehensive post arguing that Bynum should essentially be glued to the bench for eternity.
Lawrence Frank finally yanked Bynum from the rotation, and his days as a Piston seemed to be nearing an end. But injuries to others gave Bynum another opportunity to play, and he maximized it in the way he has in past seasons—by outperforming the bigger-name players in which the team had made a more significant investment.And so Bynumraised his field goal percentage to 46 percent, a career-high. His 18.2 points and 7.3 assists per 36 minutes are both his highest marks since his first season with the Pistons. And, needless to say, he’s putting up better numbers than Knight, the Pistons' erstwhile keystone. It's all awfully familiar.
None of this is to say that Bynum is now, any more than he ever was, a starter in this league. He’s clearly not. His best moments are spectacular. Along with highlight reel dunks, his frenetic scoring and pace-pushing ability have regularly helped the Pistons overcome significant deficits late in games that appeared to be over, including this season against the Atlanta Hawks.But his failures are often just as spectacular. At his worst, he’s a turnover machine incapable of playing at anything but breakneck speed, an appalling defensive player and a lousy shooter. He makes an impact, certainly, but what kind of impact is never quite clear. That he has outplayed his fellow members of Detroit's backcourt isn't as much a case for Bynum as it is a reflection of Detroit's personnel decisions in recent years. And yet.
And yet Bynum has still, by dint of his stature and style and pound-found pedigree, been sold somewhat short. Stuckey and Knight are both former first-round picks; both, physically, look like elite guards, and have the upside a rebuilding team would seek. It makes some sense that the Pistons would bank on young players like these rather than limited veterans who overachieve like Bynum. But the fact remains that Bynum has, for the most part, outplayed both general expectations and his actual peers in Detroit's backcourt during all of his Detroit seasons.
This brings everyone back around to 2010 again. Despite Detroit once again having options they prefer more at the guard spot and both money and a lottery pick with which to find upgrades, the team once again has to decide whether or not to part with one of only a handful of players who has given maximum effort with little complaint during an era of Pistons basketball when minimum effort and maximum complaint have been the norms. The Will Bynum works and works, and the cycle turns, and he is back where he was on a team that has gone nowhere in particular since last he found himself in this position. He deserves recognition, and a job, right now as much as he ever did. No more, probably, but certainly no less.