Are the Sixers actually better off because of the Andrew Bynum trade?

Are the Sixers actually better off because of the Andrew Bynum trade?

Tonight, Andrew Bynum finally makes his long-awaited, much-anticipated return to the Wells Fargo Center as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Actually, it's not really all that long awaited or particularly well anticipated: Bynum's ignominious time as a Sixer only lasted a year and now feels very long ago, and his ultimate departure was greeted with such little fanfare that there are probably Sixer fans out there that don't even know what team he's playing for now. Those in attendance tonight will no doubt boo lustily, but I can't imagine too many are making the trip to Broad Street for that express purpose.

This is partly because it's not like Bynum is exactly juggernauting it up in Cleveland. Most of us who watched his 82-game DNP streak last year were pretty irritated that he's even playing at all--since opening night, no less!--but although he's moving pretty well for a formerly dead person, his production is hardly All-Star caliber thusfar. In four games this season, he's averaging about six points and four rebounds on 28% shooting in about 13 minutes a game as Cleveland's backup center. I'm not sure when, or if, he'll eventually start over Anderson Varejao. Even if he does, it's hard to imagine he'll ever be a max guy again--by his own admission, his explosiveness is likely gone, never to return, and now he says he's even been contemplating retirement.

[VIDEO of Bynum talking in Philly yesterday, a "shell" of himself]

When it became clear that Andrew Bynum wasn't going to play much, if at all for the Philadelphia 76ers, after the four-way trade that brought him to Philly from Los Angeles two summers ago, a lot of people considered it the death of the franchise, that it would "set the Sixers back a decade." And indeed, it was hard to find the silver lining in a deal that forced the Sixers not only to part with their best player (Andre Iguodala), but three of their best future assets (Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, a future protected first-rounder) in exchange for Bynum, who never played a game in Philly, and Jason Richardson, who had one productive month before succumbing to knee issues of his own, and is currently a Sixer in cap-clogging contract only.

Still, when you look at the big picture now, and all that's changed about the franchise in the last six months, it is sort of worth asking the question: As bad as the trade ended up going for the Sixers in the short term, is it possible that they're actually still better off with the way things turned out? Was the Bynum deal, all in all, still a good trade for the Sixers?

Well, to answer this question, you really have to deal with it in two separate parts:

1. Are the Sixers better off now than they would have been had they never made the Bynum deal at all?
2. Are the Sixers better off now than they would have been had they made the deal, and Bynum ended up producing somewhere near as expected?

The answer to question #1 I think is pretty unequivocally yes. To non-Sixers followers this might seem like a strange thing to say, given that the last game the Sixers played before the Bynum trade was the 7th game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and that they entered the 2013-14 season (after Bynum's departure) expected to be the worst team in the league.

However, Sixer fans then, as now, understood the extreme luck it took for the team to get that far in the '12 postseason--namely, a spate of injuries to their first-round opponent, the Chicago Bulls, including their reigning MVP Derrick Rose--and how the team would likely never get even that far again as then-constituted. Even Doug Collins, who probably thinks he could lead a Div III team into battle against the Miami Heat as long as they played with sufficient heart and hustle, seemed to recognize that the team didn't have enough. A half-decade of hovering around .500 makes honest men of us all.

That Sixers team, as likeable as it could be with the likes of Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Elton Brand and Jrue Holiday, was permanently hamstrung by a lack of high-volume, high-efficiency scoring, the absence of a true post player, and a general dearth of elite-level (or even elite-upside) NBA talent. The reason that the Bynum deal was so exciting at the time is because it seemed to solve all of those problems at once, turning a middling, incomplete squad into a fully-formed competitor, one which the Sixers hadn't really been at any time since Allen Iverson's departure.

Had the Sixers trucked on as previously constituted, it's possible we'd still be watching close to the exact same team today. If the Sixers decide to keep the band together in the summer of 2012, maybe they make more of an effort to re-sign Lou Williams to the contract he wants, keeping the Sixers offensively beholden to Sweet Lou at the end of each half, hindering Jrue's development as the team's primary ball-handler. Maybe without the acclaim he received leading the Nuggets to a 57-win season last year, Iguodala decides not to opt out of his contract and is still blocking Evan Turner at starting small forward today. Maybe Nik Vucevic is still stuck to the bench, never evolving into the double-double machine he soon became in Orlando.

And most importantly, maybe Doug Collins is still in office. By most accounts, Collins was not only the team's sideline general, but the most important voice in final personnel decisions during that summer of 2012, when they not only traded for Bynum, but also amnestied Elton Brand, let Lou Williams walk, re-signed Spencer Hawes and added Nick Young, Dorell Wright and Kwame Brown through trade and free agency. Most of these decisions were controversial and none of them turned out particularly well--though I still say a prayer every morning in thanks for us not giving Lou five years and $35 million--and Collins never really acknowledged any as a mistake, or even took responsibility for being the guiding hand behind any.

The ensuing season without Lou, Andre or Elton--and as it turns out, without Bynum--was predictably disastrous, so much so that by the time it was over, the spell Doug Collins cast over the franchise in his overachieving first few seasons as coach had finally been broken, and majority owner Josh Harris decided to clean house entirely. Before long, Collins was gone, acting GM Tony DiLeo was gone, even most of the medical staff was gone. With the front office whitewashed, and Brand and Iguodala's gargantuan contracts finally totally off the books, it was a complete break from the previous era of Sixers basketball. In all likelihood, none of it would have happened without the Bynum trade.

Shortly after, Harris would make the move that would bring us to where we are now with the Philadelphia 76ers:  Hiring GM Sam Hinkie, former assistant of the Houston Rockets. Hinkie of course made his first act of business to trade the franchise's lone All-Star in Jrue Holiday essentially for future draft considerations--a move that previous Sixers front offices would never have even put on the board, if for no other reason than the negative PR implications--then hired former Spurs assistant Brett Brown to coach the team in what was becoming an obvious rebuilding year, to put it somewhat generously, as no veterans were acquired in the off-season and most of the players signed to fill out the roster were once-trumpeted cast-offs from other teams.

The results so far this season have been a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, and often both at the same time. But Sixer fans have a calm to them this year that they've had at no other point this century, because at the very least, we believe in the men in charge, and we know that they believe in each other. Anyone who spends considerable time in professional sports will tell you that the most important thing for a franchise's sustained success is that its ownership, front office and coaching staff are all operating from the same manual, and Harris, Hinkie and Brown clearly share the same vision of a team that takes its lumps for a few years, builds through the draft, congeals around the same on-court priorities, and contends for a championship in three-four years' time.

And at the moment, the Sixers appear to be as set for the future as any team that isn't already pretty good. We have more cap space than is technically legal, we have one quality rookie already making waves in the pros and another on the way, we have two solid picks coming in the best draft class in a decade, and we have an offensive system in place that five games into the season is allowing players like Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes to put up All-Star-caliber numbers. The Sixers could win 10 games this year and they'd be fine, they could win 35 games this year and they'd be fine. Life is finally full of possibilities.

Of course, there's nothing guaranteed in this league, and having the opportunity to add real talent to your roster is not the same thing as actually doing so. But unlike when Doug Collins, Tony DiLeo and/or Rod Thorn were running the show, we can trust that Hinkie and company will make decisions for the right reasons and not try to cheat the process--they won't reward statistical over-achievement with auto-extensions, and they won't chase down overpaid veterans to try to bump from the tenth seed to the seventh. And as fans, we'd always rather have the possibility of true greatness than an ensured mediocrity, which is why most of us were OK with the risk inherent in the Bynum deal in the first place.

That's why it seems pretty obvious to me that the Sixers are in better shape now than they were pre-Bynum. It's tempting to dream that without Bynum, the Sixers still would have shed their large contracts and built around Jrue, Evan, Harkless and Vucevic--who put up 30 and 21 and beat the Clippers nearly single-handedly a few nights ago, looking like one of the league's next great centers--but it's unlikely they would have had the patience to develop those guys on a team that was still looking to make the playoffs (and had the veterans with which to do so), and far more likely that none of them would have reached their true potential on that Collins-led Sixers squad. (Remember, Vucevic couldn't even get off Collins' bench in his final games as a Sixer.)

The harder question, though, is if the team is not only better off that the trade happened, but also that it didn't work out. Where would the Sixers be now with a healthy Andrew Bynum? Could Bynum, Jrue, Evan and Thad have comprised a core to contend with the super-powers in the Eastern conference? Would they have had the resources to further improve their roster if not? How would the best-case scenario 2012-'13 Sixers have compared to the roster Hinkie envisions us having 3-4 years from now?

It's impossible to know for sure. You'd like to combine in your head Andrew Bynum's All-Star 2011-'12 season with the Lakers, Jrue Holiday's All-Star season last year with the Sixers, and Evan Turner's much-improved play so far this year, and think that if those three guys could have played together with Thad, Spence and a healthy J-Rich, that that could have been a roster to hang with the Miamis and Indianas of the NBA. But there's no telling how the chemistry would have been, how Bynum's presence as a first option would have affected Jrue and Evan's development, how Bynum and Thad would mesh as frontcourt partners, or how Coach Collins (or his inevitable replacement) would have been able to deal with the, uh, erratic Bynum as the franchise player.

In retrospect, I feel like the most likely scenario for a Bynum-led Sixers would have been something good and fun, but probably just short of real contention. I could see the Sixers maybe ending up with an Atlanta Hawks-like ceiling of playing some exciting playoff games, maybe even winning a series here and there, but never really providing an honest threat to the big boys. It would have been fun to watch the Heat try to contend with a force like healthy Bynum using the likes of Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen, but I don't know if we'd ever be able to beat them four times in seven tries.

And honestly, talking about best-case scenarios involving Bynum's health is kind of a fallacy to begin with. Health was always going to be an issue with the big man sooner or later--the '11-'12 season was the only one of his career for which he had been totally healthy, and his knee condition had been reported as a degenerative one, which was going to always make him a risk for rapidly deteriorating production, if not outright inactivity. Maybe if he hadn't needed knee surgery or anything, he still would've worn down his knees in one "healthy" season with the Sixers to the point that a year or two into whatever extension we signed him to, he would've been obviously compromised and badly overpaid. There was always a ton of risk to weigh against with Andrew Bynum.

Ultimately, I think it's probably for the best that we are where we are now. Removing Bynum from the equation altogether--since in the end, he was never actually a factor--what the Sixers basically did two summers ago was trade Andre Iguodala, Nik Vucevic, Moe Harkless and a pick for the opportunity to hit the rest button on their franchise, to usher out a front office that prioritized respectability over greatness and bring in one that listened to what the fans really wanted, which is the chance to eventually be the best team in the NBA. It hurts to lose future assets like Vucevic and Harkless--we could certainly use both in a year or two's time--but all in all, it seems like a small price to pay for finally getting the franchise on the right track.

So boo Bynum if you want tonight--I wouldn't blame you, and he probably doesn't care anyway. But keep in mind that if it wasn't for him, his balky knees and his crazy 'fro collection, this would still be a team run by Doug Collins, Tony DiLeo and their ilk, and one without Michael Carter-Williams, without the long-term vision of Sam Hinkie and Brett Brown, and without any chance of landing Wiggins, Randle or probably anybody else in next year's draft. And for that, Andrew Bynum, we thank you most heartily for services rendered.

Union-Galaxy 5 things: Union aim for 1st win against 'angry' Galaxy

Union-Galaxy 5 things: Union aim for 1st win against 'angry' Galaxy

Union vs. Los Angeles Galaxy
10:30 p.m. on TCN

The Union travel to the west coast this weekend in search of anything resembling success. Fresh off a bitter draw, which snapped a four-game losing streak but involved spoiling a three-goal lead, the beleaguered Union (0-4-3) will take on the angry Los Angeles Galaxy (2-5-0) on Saturday night (10:30 p.m., TCN) at the StubHub Center.

Here are five things to know:

1.Getting Away In LA
The Union could use a vacation. 

Two weeks ago, the league's lone winless club, were left embarrassed as New York City FC's David Villa scored a goal from midfield to cement the Union's fourth-straight loss. Last week, the hard-luck club gave up a three-goal lead in a span of 50 minutes to draw the Montreal Impact. 

"In some ways, our guys getting away right now, maybe clearing their head, to sleep in a different bed, can be an advantage for us," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "Nobody is happy with how things have gone. We have to look towards LA and try to get a result out there."

It's been said before, but the Union desperately need positivity. The club hasn’t felt victory since Aug. 27, 2016, and has gone winless through roughly 20-percent of their season. Once loaded with playoff aspirations, the Union are nearly four wins out the postseason picture.

"We're looking to take three points," Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin said. "We've been waiting so long, even some games we play good but don't take the points. This Saturday, we're going to play as a team, fight for every yard on the field and hopefully take three points to Philly with us."

Fafa Picault echoed his teammate's message. 

"We're looking for three points," he said. "We need them." 

2.Finding a Balance
Last week, the Union's focus was on scoring goals, finishing chances and making the most of their limited offensive opportunities. But after scoring three first-half goals against the Montreal Impact last Saturday, the focus is now on keeping goals out of their net.

"The balance isn't quite there," said Curtin, who is still looking for the perfect starting combination to deliver a win. "We've had good moments in 35-minute spurts but we haven't maintained it for 90 minutes, so we're still in search of a group that can go out and execute for 90 minutes." 

Yet that group Curtin is searching for won't be easy to find. Early in the season, the Union tried defensive-minded Derrick Jones at the No. 8 spot, which Alejandro Bedoya at No. 10. It didn't work, which forced Curtin to bench Jones, move Bedoya to his more natural No. 8 position and activate Roland Alberg at the 10. 

Last week, the manager even benched right back Keegan Rosenberry in favor of Ray Gaddis, making Saturday’s starting roster a mystery.

"It's very challenging right now," Curtin said. "The group still remains together, they continue to work and it's not for lack of effort. It's about getting little plays cleaned up in front of both goals."

Those little plays have cost the Union. The club has allowed an Eastern Conference-worst 14 goals in seven games, including eight in their last three matches. 

"I've said it every time, if we're gonna give up a minimum of two goals every game, we're not gonna win a game," Bedoya said. "You can't. You can't win a game if you"re letting two goals every game. We need to get better and step it up defensively and get a shutout, at least."

3. Troubled Galaxy
Much like the Union, Curt Onalfo's Galaxy are struggling. 

The typically powerful club was destroyed, 3-0, by the Seattle Sounders last weekend, marking its third loss in its last four matches. The downturn is an unusual sight for a team that boasts players like Giovani Dos Santos, Romain Alessandrini and Jermaine Jones. 

"It's a matter of when you go through adversity and difficult times, you find out what you're all about," Onalfo told LAGalaxy.com. "That's when people step up and true character rises. I believe in the group and the vision of what we're doing. We didn't draw it up this way at all, but we stay strong and stay confident. We're looking forward and we're going to get a result on Saturday."

Knowing that the Galaxy are marking Saturday as a must-win match, the Union are preparing for the host's best and most aggressive punches. 

"They are a dangerous team coming off a 3-0 loss at home, so they will be angry," Curtin said. "It won’t get any easier for us. We have to work on some things defensively and in our attack, we're fighting to get our first win."

And while the Union hope preying on the limping Galaxy can give them a spark, the Galaxy hope facing the struggling Union can help jump start their season.

"We have to start collecting points so we can move up," Galaxy center back Daniel Steres told the website. "We're just worried about the next game, that's why it's a must-win. It's at home and we have to get three points."

4. Keep an eye on
Jermaine Jones: Looking to spark the Galaxy attack, Onalfo may choose to play Jones in a more aggressive midfield position. Jones has never scored against the Union in three tries and has one goal this season.

Roland Alberg: Once again, Alberg is the player to watch for the Union. Expected to make his third consecutive start on Saturday, the Union’s new starting No. 10 scored twice against the Impact. As he goes, so does the Union’s offense.

5. This and that
The Union are an unfavorable 1-6-2 against the Galaxy all-time. 

Former Union forward Jack McInerney could face his old club on Saturday. McInerney, who was signed by the Galaxy on April 18, wasn’t quite ready to be activated because of conditioning. He played four full seasons with the Union.

Because of injury, the Galaxy will be without Sebastian Lletget and Robbie Rogers, while the Union will continue to miss Josh Yaro, Maurice Edu, John McCarthy and Ken Tribbett. 

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies (11-10) at Dodgers (12-12)
9:10 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies' six-game winning streak came to an abrupt end out west Friday night. The beauty of baseball is that you have a chance to start a new streak a day later. Zach Eflin looks to avenge a poor performance from last season while the Dodgers send out veteran righty Brandon McCarthy at home.

Here are five things to know for Saturday evening's game.

1. Two strong starts for Eflin
In his second season as a big-league starter, Eflin is off to a lot better start than last year. 

If you remember his MLB debut, he gave up eight runs and retired just eight batters against a Blue Jays team that could hit the snot out of the ball … and did. Through two starts, Eflin had a 10.80 ERA and two losses to his résumé before coming into his own over the next two months.

This year has been just about the opposite. Eflin clearly looks comfortable on a major-league mound. He's turned Clay Buchholz's spot in the rotation into a positive. He's allowed just three runs and one home run in 12 innings, good for a 2.25 ERA.

The modern thinking is that an ideal pitcher strikes out a lot of batters, avoids walks and home runs, and induces weak contact. Eflin has done all but the strikeouts. His sinker has been marvelous and the Mets/Braves had little chance to do damage against it. Pete Mackanin described the sinker as a bowling ball. That just about says it all. The sinker won't induce that many swings and misses — thus the lack of strikeouts — but he can throw it in the zone and keep hitters off balance.

The Dodgers kind of ended Eflin's season last year. In reality, it was dueling knee injuries that did Eflin in (see story), but the Dodgers were the last team to take advantage of an ailing Eflin, hitting three home runs and scoring seven runs in just three innings Aug. 8. Even the outs in that game were generally line drives. Chase Utley, Yasmani Grandal and Corey Seager — all of whom could be in the lineup Saturday — took the now-23-year-old righty deep.

Being a righty against the Dodgers isn't all that advantageous as the team boasts those three hitters and Adrian Gonzalez, Andrew Toles and Cody Bellinger as lefties who can put up disruptive plate appearances. Unfortunately for the Phillies, they have a rotation full of righties and are unable to take advantage of the Dodgers' platoon issues.

2. Dodgers send out resurgent righty
The first two seasons of Brandon McCarthy's deal with the Dodgers essentially went by the wayside. Now, the 33-year-old starter is picking up where he left off in 2014.

McCarthy has long been one of the more entertaining and thoughtful players in baseball, as evidenced by his Twitter account. The veteran righty has also been a steadily average to occasionally above-average pitcher in 12 MLB seasons, bouncing around teams mostly on the west coast. He posted career-worst numbers with the Diamondbacks in the first half of 2014, but he rebounded in the second half with the Yankees, pitching to a 2.89 ERA in 90 innings despite the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

He parlayed that second half into a four-year, $48 million deal with the Dodgers and that was almost immediately derailed by Tommy John surgery. Going into 2017, he had thrown just 63 innings and made only 13 starts in the first half of his contract. McCarthy was one of many Dodgers pitchers on the disabled list during a 2016 with a record-setting number of injuries for the club.

But now he's apparently back to form and, perhaps most importantly, he's healthy. He's made it through four starts unscathed this year and is 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA to boot. He's allowed just 18 hits in 24 innings. Similar to Eflin, he relies primarily on a dynamic sinker that sits in the low-to-mid 90s. He also features a low 90s cutter and an 80 mph curveball, both of which grade out well this season.

Only three current Phillies have any history vs. McCarthy. With his history in the AL West with the Mariners, Michael Saunders has faced McCarthy plenty with sub-par results, going 2 for 13 with five strikeouts. Freddy Galvis is 3 for 3 off the righty while Andres Blanco is 0 for 1.

3. How does the Dodgers' bullpen stack up?
Going into Friday's action, the Dodgers' bullpen had a 3.15 collective ERA, good for eighth in all of baseball and second-best in the National League. As a whole, the crew strikes out 10.29 batters per nine innings and has the highest wins above replacement of any bullpen in baseball.

Any conversation about the Dodgers' 'pen starts with Kenley Jansen, one of the premier closers in the game today. He overwhelms hitters with a cutter many consider reminiscent of Mariano Rivera. It isn't quite up to Rivera's level, but it is still wildly effective. He has a 2.16 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings this season, locking down six saves in six chances. He dominated the Phillies on Friday night.

Setting up for him primarily is righty flamethrower Pedro Baez. Baez pitches with a dreadfully slow pace but great results, striking out batters at a similar clip and takes a 1.08 ERA into the weekend. Righty Josh Fields and lefty Grant Dayton each hadn't allowed a run this year before Fields let one up in the eighth inning Friday while lefty Luis Avilan has been effective primarily vs. lefties. 

While Chris Hatcher and Ross Stripling, both righties, each has a loss this season, they've still achieved OK results pitching often in low leverage situations. The biggest disappointment for Los Angeles has been the offseason signing of former Giants closer Sergio Romo. The 34-year-old has a 10.57 ERA through 10 appearances and has walked as many batters as he's struck out. If the Phillies get to face Romo in a big situation this weekend, it'll be a tremendous opportunity to do some damage.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Freddy Galvis takes a 10-game hitting streak into action on Saturday night. Not only does he have good numbers off McCarthy, he's also simply off to the best start to his career. The Phillies' shortstop has traditionally been a better second half hitter but he has a career-best .269 average and .487 slugging percentage thus far.

Dodgers: While he is currently playing corner outfield, rookie Cody Bellinger is the Dodgers' first baseman of the future. Currently the No. 10 prospect in baseball, he had five home runs in Triple A Oklahoma City and is projected to have legitimate in-game power at the major league level. 

5. This and that
• The Phillies went 2-4 vs. the Dodgers last season and haven't won a series at Dodger Stadium since April 21-24, 2014, when they took three of four.

• Frequent trade partners in recent history, the Phillies and Dodgers have teamed up for eight trades since the 2012 trade deadline. Eflin himself came to the Phillies in the 2014 Jimmy Rollins trade.

• McCarthy is typically at his worst in April. He has a 5.01 ERA for March/April in his career, his worst for any month. However, he pitched well the two times he faced the Phillies. He threw eight shutout innings in 2013 and gave up two runs while striking out 12 in seven innings during the 2014 season.