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Don’t Write Off Andrew Bynum Just Yet

Nov 26, 2012, 10:25 AM EDT

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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.

Bynum: _I think it happened bowling_

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.