By Rob Mahoney
The 76ers made a good, sensible deal when they traded Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless for budding star center Andrew Bynum. But even good, sensible deals are subject to twists of fate.
Since making that deal last August, the Sixers still haven't seen Bynum on the court for a single game and won't this season. The prized acquisition -- who is set to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season -- will undergo arthroscopic surgery on both knees. The two procedures eliminate any chance that Bynum might play this season, meaning that Philadelphia’s gamble will end in one of two ways:
1. With the Sixers committing long term to a player who has undergone three knee surgeries/procedures and played no games in roughly a year.
2. With the Sixers having traded a talented all-around veteran player and three young assets (including a protected first-round pick) while getting nothing in return from their marquee acquisition.
It’s a tough situation, and the outcome will come down to Bynum’s contract demands and the Sixers' will to risk money on a player this good and this injury-prone. Another team is virtually guaranteed to take a chance on Bynum; his potential is still high enough for many franchises to justify accepting such a significant risk. The Sixers have indicated in recent weeks that they, too, are interested in retaining Bynum, but Philadelphia general manager Tony DiLeo noted a few weeks ago that there's no way for the team to take a definitive stance on Bynum's prospects given how little could be confirmed about his knees. Unfortunately for the Sixers, those projections have only become more complicated now that he'll have to undergo more procedures.
The Sixers would have enough room to sign other quality players should they opt to forfeit Bynum’s Bird Rights and cap hold, but the 25-year-old remains a terrific talent at a clear position of need. He’d be a nice fit alongside the other members of the Sixers’ core and has flashed the kind of talent necessary to function as a team’s best offensive player. That’s an alluring combination -- so alluring, in fact, that it could wind up being Philadelphia’s undoing. The Sixers obviously have a vested interest in signing Bynum. They gave up a considerable amount to acquire Bynum in the first place, and the motivation to validate that investment -- the process of trading for Bynum, his rehabilitation, his time with team personnel and the long wait for his return -- could compel Philadelphia to keep him around, even if the team might ultimately be better served by allowing him to move on.
Either way, Bynum will surely find a home. Players this productive don’t tend to go unclaimed, though Bynum may have to consider a short-term deal in order to persuade a team to sign him. That, too, could put Philadelphia in a bad negotiating position; the one thing the Sixers have working in their favor above all else is that they can offer Bynum more money than any other suitor, though in this case winning a bidding war for Bynum results in even more significant investment for a player with worrisome knees.
This entire episode puts Philadelphia in a tricky situation, but what are the Sixers to do? Target a short-term deal for Bynum that would minimize risk while retaining a high-level asset? Remain open to signing Bynum to a longer contract and hope for value on return? Or cut their losses now and look to move in a different direction?