PHILADELPHIA -- It was a game Memphis had no business winning, but Marc Gasol decided to win it for them just the same. No Mike Conley, Zach Randolph barely contributing, a depleted bench that was still reeling from the cost-cutting trade that sent Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington to Cleveland. Yet there was Gasol, knocking down turnarounds, burying deep jumpers, even tossing in a three-pointer -- the fifth of his career -- for good measure. And with the clock winding down and with the Sixers holding the ball with a chance to tie, there was Gasol, swatting away a Nick Young three-pointer, securing a 103-100 Memphis win.
If only the Sixers had someone on the roster who could deal with him. If only Philadelphia had an All-Star seven-footer of its own.
They do, of course, but for now Andrew Bynum is a fantasy, a dream of what could be. Bynum has not played a minute for Philly this season, his ailing knees keeping him in street clothes. Bynum met with reporters again on Monday night, offering few specifics on when he will return. He won't be back before the All-Star break. He said he is making "baby steps" and "gradually increasing" his workload, but can't say when he expects to return to practice.
"I talked about [coming back before the All-Star break], but to me it doesn't really matter when I come back," Bynum said. "I think giving myself the extra week of training would be better than trying to come back before that."
Philadelphia needs Bynum back, badly, because a season that once had much promise is unraveling. At 18-26 Philadelphia is three games out of the final playoff spot, looking up at a Boston team that even without Rajon Rondo isn't going to just fold. The Sixers play hard, no question, but they need an identity, one only Bynum can bring. All summer Sixers coaches dreamed of playing inside-out, of harnessing Bynum's marvelous skills in the post. Bynum would be the go-to scorer, Bynum would be the one to create open looks for everyone else.
"Anytime you can throw the ball into the paint, it changes your team," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "You don't have to run three guys off a screen to get a shot. When you run pick and roll, you can't leave him. You have to keep a body on him. Now [defenders] on guys driving to the basket less hesitant to leave. The game becomes real simple."
"I always use Dwight [Howard] as an example. Running the floor, a guard has to pick him up, and now a guard is open on the perimeter. Rolling down the paint, someone has to pick him up, [and] someone will be open. Setting a good screen, someone has to pick him up. He is getting to the free throw line, getting into the penalty. These are all things good big men do."
The Sixers don't have one, not now, and who knows when they will. And without Bynum, the team's weaknesses have been exposed. The decision not to re-sign Lou Williams coupled with losing Andre Iguodala in the Bynum deal has left Philadelphia without two of its top scorers and its two best threats to get to the foul line. The bench, a top five unit last season, has plummeted to the bottom third. Quickly blossoming fourth-year guard Jrue Holiday has been excellent, but without post players or penetrators the Sixers have been at the mercy of the jump shot. Through Sunday, Philadelphia was 24th in the NBA in points in the paint (38.2) and 29th in free throw attempts (17.2).
The results -- Philadelphia hasn't won back-to-back games since November -- have been frustrating, occasionally bubbling over. Collins was apoplectic after a loss to Milwaukee last week, leading some league executives to wonder whether Collins, who has never coached a team longer than three seasons, had reached his breaking point.
When asked about his frustrations, Collins deadpanned, "What coach isn't frustrated?"
When pressed about whether he still enjoyed coaching this team, Collins said "Absolutely. Unless I get those kind of questions."
Indeed, Collins is a powerful figure in the Sixers organization, and the job is likely his as long as he wants it. Yet he won't succeed in it without Bynum, the ever-present elephant in the locker room, one that grows more anxious for his return by the day.
"Once the big fella comes back, it's going to be different," said Evan Turner. "Once he comes back, when he does, it will close down the middle. People know what's going on. They still fear him."
Said Thaddeus Young, "We're very anxious. We have been waiting all season long for the big fella to show us what he has got. We feel once he gets back it's going to be much easier for us to win games. We're just going to have to hold the fort down until he comes back."
When Bynum comes back, if he comes back, Philadelphia will have the team it hoped for. It will have a dominating low post center, one capable of posting 20 points and ten rebounds regularly. Yes, Andrew Bynum can still salvage Philadelphia's season, so long as he returns before it slips away.