The Sixers will return to the court on Saturday night. Andrew Bynum will not.
The Sixers have 22 wins and 30 losses. They have been an up-and-down (mostly down) team, a hit-or-miss (mostly miss) squad in the midst of an unspectacular season that is quickly funneling toward a conclusion that won’t include the playoffs unless something spectacular and unexpected happens.
That spectacular and unexpected thing would be Bynum getting healthy and playing well and carrying the listless Sixers on a back supported by two bad knees. On Tuesday, Bynum said he’s 100 percent certain he’ll play this year. You’re forgiven if you’re 100 percent skeptical.
Not long ago, Bynum said he hoped to return right after the All-Star break. Then, he modified his schedule and said the “target” for his return was February. And now he says he won’t practice for a week or two, which would put him into March.
The Sixers have 30 games remaining. If Bynum doesn’t practice for another two weeks, that would be around March 8. There are nine games between now and then. Delete them all, and the Sixers would be down to 21 games. But then Bynum would have to practice for a little while before competing. Subtract at least another week -- at least three more outings -- and the Sixers would have 18 games remaining before Bynum plays. That’s if all goes well, which it hasn’t so far.
This thing is a huge mess. There are four possible scenarios now. None of them are good for the Sixers.
Bynum plays and the Sixers don’t re-sign him
Even if he can get on the court for the last 18 games (I’d take the under on that number if you’re a gambler), that’s such a small sample size that it would be impossible to know how (or if) he’ll hold up next year and the year after and the year after that. He’s 25, he has two bad knees and he’s already missed the majority of this season. That hardly inspires confidence.
Bynum is a free agent after this year. If the Sixers let him walk, or if he decides to walk on his own, the team would clear about $16.4 million off the books. That would give the organization money to spend in free agency. The problem is that the 2013 free agent class isn’t tailored to the Sixers’ many needs.
Top-tier players like Dwight Howard and Chris Paul aren’t coming to Philadelphia. The more you look at the list, the more you’ll see that the Sixers would be down to courting guys such as Josh Smith or Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. Even if one of them excites you, are any of them worth big-money contracts? And do any of them make the Sixers contenders in the East? (The answer to both questions is no.)
Bynum plays and the Sixers re-sign him
During All-Star weekend, Kobe Bryant told Dei Lynam that Bynum “is a phenomenal player.” What he should have said: Bynum “was a phenomenal player.” We know what he used to be. We don’t know what he is at the moment, and we don’t know what he will (or won’t) be in the future.
If Bynum returns and plays around 18 games, how can the Sixers possibly use such a limited audition to evaluate his health and worth? Last year, in a lockout-shortened season, Bynum played 60 regular-season games and 12 more in the postseason. He looked good and healthy. Then, he came to Philly and looked the opposite. If you couldn’t predict his value after 72 games, how can you do it after, at most, 18? And then, if they do re-sign him, what if this tiresome saga drags out and his health continues to be a problem? It would be disastrous on the court, and it would be equally damaging to the franchise from a PR perspective.
Bynum doesn’t play and the Sixers don’t re-sign him
This might be the best outcome for the Sixers. Even though the 2013 free agent class appears to have limited options for them, the Sixers would at least get someone healthy. Ostensibly. You can apparently never be too sure these days.
After a year of bad publicity in which media members and fans have criticized the Sixers, this might be the easiest one to spin. It’s the cut-their-losses scenario. The Sixers admit they gambled and lost, then resolve to move on with a different, less-perilous plan.
Bynum doesn’t play and the Sixers re-sign him
For the Sixers, this is the go-for-broke/in-for-a-penny, in-for-millions-of-dollars-more gambit. It would be the basketball equivalent of buying an expensive lottery ticket, scratching off the panel with glee, losing, frowning and then buying the same lottery ticket again -- only for more money while knowing that, if it doesn’t pay off this time, you’re going to end up in an NBA soup kitchen for many years to come.
“Would I be a risk?" Bynum asked. “I don’t know because I don’t do risk assessment.”
I don’t do risk assessment. You probably don’t, either. And yet everyone knows Bynum is a huge risk -- everyone but Bynum and the Sixers, evidently.
None of these scenarios are good. The Sixers are in a horrible spot and they’re facing an impossible decision with no right or clear answer. If I was a member of the front office and I had to pick one of the above possibilities, I’d lean toward the third. It’s the easiest way out for everyone -- which isn’t the same as ensuring the best conclusion to this frightful tale.
The Sixers have written a choose-their-own-adventure novel. They will be forced to pick a path and turn the page soon. The problem is that all of their options are ugly and fraught with danger.