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.
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?
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.