Don't Write Off Andrew Bynum Just Yet

Don't Write Off Andrew Bynum Just Yet

Yeah, the news is pretty bad. With Saturday's revelation from GM Tony DiLeo that all timetables for Andrew Bynum's return—to the 76ers, to basketball activity, to a quasi-normal hair level—have been put on hold, it appears that most of our worst fears about Bynum have been confirmed (or at the very least, validated). Nothing is certain yet, but it's seeming more and more probable that all of the following are the case:

1. Andrew Bynum will very likely not play a single minute for the Philadelphia 76ers this regular season.

2. If the team makes the playoffs, Bynum will very likely not play with them in the post-season.

3. In the off-season, Bynum will very likely still land a high, possibly max-level contract in free agency, which the Sixers will have to decide whether to match and/or exceed without having seen him play in a year (and never for the 76ers).

4. If the Sixers do sign Bynum to a deal in the off-season, he'll very likely still be recovering from injury (or from the eventual season-ending surgery he might have later this year) and will not be ready opening day or for some time into the season.

5. If the Sixers do re-sign Bynum and he eventually does return to the lineup, there's no guarantee he will ever be fully healthy (or fully at the level he was playing at eight months ago), and he will very likely continue to miss significant chunks of playing time for the remainder of his career.


Yeah, it's like that. Yet even with all that said—and it's a whole lot to say, for sure—I'm still going to try to tell you why it's too early to close the book on Andrew Bynum as a Philadelphia 76er, and why the team very likely will and/or should pursue re-signing him in the off-season, despite all the countless risks and red flags.

First and foremost, forget about this season. It was never about this season. Now, that's a tough thing to swallow for those of us who have stuck through the team through the half-decade of post-Iverson mediocrity—four low-seed post-season appearances in five years, only one (injury-assisted) playoff series win—and were thinking that with Bynum's arrival, something was finally going to be different this year. The fanbase—what's left of it at this point—is fed up with all the averageness, and to be asked to be patient for another year isn't what anybody wants to hear.

But the goal in landing Bynum wasn't to compete for a championship in 2011-12. The goal was to grow a core that could eventually contend over the course of Bynum's five-year deal, after he hopefully re-signed with us in the off-season. With Bynum, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young locked up (and Evan Turner likely to follow), the Sixers hoped to have a consistent team in place that would have several years of playing together while each player was still in their basketball prime—Bynum would just be turning 26 at the start of the '13-'14 season, and he'd be the oldest of the quartet—and with some growing together, and a couple nice complementary pieces, could be a real threat in the Eastern Conference for at least three or four seasons.

So regardless of what happens this year—whether Bynum never plays a minute, whether the Sixers felt they were dealt damaged goods by L.A., whether they're still miffed at him for going bowling without written permission—none of it should matter a lick when it comes to re-signing him in the off-season. The only important thing is what they think Bynum will be capable of moving forward, and if they think he'll still be able to be healthy and productive, then they shouldn't hold any of this season's travails against him.

Of course, that's a big, big if. It's possible that the myriad injuries Bynum has suffered through this season will all eventually heal and not re-appear, but given that the injuries came outside of game action (and given Andrew's prior history with leg injuries, causing him to miss over 15 games in all but two of his seven NBA seasons before this one), not too many betting men would wager on that happening. More likely, leg issues will plague him for his entire career in some form or another.

But if the Sixers check Bynum out in the off-season—and hopefully do a more thorough job than they did the last off-season—and conclude that there's no specific reason to believe he'll never be healthy again, then I think they'll still probably be better off rolling the dice with him again. Even if Bynum's seven years in LA were injury-plagued, he was around enough to help the Lakers win a pair of championships, and establish himself as the league's second-best seven-plus-footer. If he could give the Sixers an average of 55 healthy games a year for five years, and be around to play in four of the post-seasons, I think we still take that in a heartbeat.

Because here's the thing: The Sixers aren't getting another Andrew Bynum anytime soon. It was practically a miracle that they got him in the first place (even if it doesn't feel particularly miraculous at the moment), and to expect another All-Star caliber center still in his best years to become available to the Sixers in the next five years is decidedly impractical.

There's only three ways to get a player like Bynum (or any other player, for that matter)—by trading for him, drafting him, or picking him up in free agency. Even if a Bynum-level big somehow emerged on the trade market, the Sixers no longer have the assets to trade for one, having given up their last two first-round draftees to get Drew the first time around, and dealing a couple future first-rounders in the off-season as well. Unless Arnett Moultrie grows into the second coming of Serge Ibaka, or unless the team is willing to part with Evan Turner, the team won't have either the draft picks or the cheap, young players to package with a Spencer Hawes or Jason Richardson to make a blockbuster deal work. Drafting another Andrew Bynum isn't impossible, but it's going to be hard to do as long as the team keeps picking just inside or outseide oft he lottery, as they're likely to do with this set of players—and I don't see the team committing to tanking for one as long as Doug Collins is the coach, certainly.

That leaves one remaining avenue: Free agency. Could the Sixers get a big of Bynum's caliber on the open market? They could make a run at Al Jefferson or Josh Smith in the off-season, but neither fit the team's needs as well as a healthy Bynum, and both might require clearing some cap space (as well as declining to re-sign the likes of Dorell Wright and/or Nick Young) to do so. And regardless of who they target, with the CBA rules the way they are and with Philadelphia not a particularly attractive market to prospective free agents, the Sixers will always be fighting against the tide to land a big fish in free agency—as opposed to with Andrew Bynum, where Philly should have the inside track in re-signing him by being able to offer him more money than anybody else.

And if a Bynum-caliber player doesn't become available to the Sixers in the next few years, then what? We can use our cap space to plug little holes in the lineup—a backup point guard here, a defensive wing there—but as just about anybody inside or outside the NBA will tell you, only 15-20 players in the league really matter. Only those 15 or so players make bad teams good and make good teams great, and without at least one of those guys, you can only scrap your way to so many wins on grit and toughness and teamwork. Star power almost always wins in the end, and if all the Sixers do is solidify their team around their current core, the best they can hope for is to be the Atlanta Hawks of the last five years, winning about 50 games every year and getting demolished in the second round.

And here's the other thing—the Sixers are really close to being really good. Jrue Holiday appears to have taken the next step and then some, cementing his status as a top-flight point guard in the Eastern Conference and likely elbowing his way into All-Star contention with last night's dominant 33-point, 13-assist performance against the Suns. Right behind him is Evan Turner, leading the Sixers in rebounding from the wing, improving his efficiency as a scorer and playmaker, and seeming to find a way to contribute every game, even when his shot is off. If both those guys continue on their current development paths, it's not hard to see them emerging as the second and third-best players on a contending team a year or two down the line.

Surrounding them, the rest of the team appears to have fallen into place as well. Jason Richardson is the best deep threat the Sixers have had since Kyle Korver, if not longer. Thaddeus Young basically is who he is at this point, a solid, undersized power forward who'll chip in with scoring and rebounding every night but rarely dominate, but if he's your fourth or fifth best player, you're doing OK. Spencer Hawes is overpaid, but for a backup center, you could certainly do a lot worse. Lavoy Allen and Dorell Wright are quality rotation guys, and Nick Young is...well, he's Nick Young. There's a real team here, one that can be good (and very possibly even better than good) for a long time.

But it all revolves around Andrew Bynum. He's the missing piece, the guy who makes everybody else's role on the team make sense. With him we're a complete unit, without him we're undersized and out-rebounded and perpetually one scorer short. With him on the sideline, someone on the team is always getting overexposed—whether it be Kwame or Spencer getting too many minutes, Jrue or Evan taking too many shots, or Thaddeus or Lavoy getting beaten for too many rebounds. This team needs Andrew Bynum, or someone like him, to be great—and for better or worse, there aren't too many players like Andrew Bynum out there for the taking in the NBA.

So the team might have to take a chance. Hell, it might have to take a really, really big chance. I'm not advising they threw caution to the wind, mind you—if Bynum's legs are just done, never to recover, then get their medical team to ascertain that information and send him merrily on his way. But if they take a look at him next off-season and see another calculated risk...I'd hope they think long and hard about taking it, even if the odds are decent it blows up in their faces. For a franchise that has been slightly above-average for so long, I think the chance of being great is worth more than the certainty of being decent.

Of course, maybe this is all premature. Maybe Bynum recovery goes better than planned, he helps lead the Sixers on a deep playoff run, and all agree that an extension in the off-season is for the best. But if you're skeptical of that, and you probably should be, I hope you're not totally writing him off as a sunk cost just yet. We need him too bad, and worked too hard to get him, to just let him get away that easily. And if the Sixers do let Bynum walk, and fail to get another big of his equal in the off-season, I hope it triggers a full-on rebuild. At that point, I'll probably be in favor of any move that allows us to escape another seventh or eighth seed.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”