Andrew Bynum Is The NBA’s Ultimate Catch-22

In February of 2005, the Philadelphia 76ers made what was thought to be a blockbuster deal when they acquired Chris Webber from the Sacramento Kings. It was their last effort to pair Allen Iverson an All-Star-caliber player. The Sixers failed to do so in prior attempts with guys like Glenn Robinson, Toni Kukoc and even Dikembe Mutombo (although they had to make that deal and every Sixers fan knows why). C-Webb was 30 years old and only played in 23 games in the season prior due to knee injuries. I guess any time you have a chance to acquire a 30-year-old power forward with major knee problems and a monster, impossible-to-get-out-of contract, you have to do it. This was Billy King‘s last attempt to salvage a very poor run as the Sixers’ general manager, and like times prior, this attempt failed as well.

During the 2008 offseason, the Sixers signed free agent power forward Elton Brand to a five-year, $80 million deal. He was 28 years old at the time and played in just eight games in the season prior to his signing because of a ruptured Achilles tendon. There seems to be a pattern here. Ed Stefanski (who pulled the trigger on the Brand signing) would give Andre Iguodala a max contract a year later, knotting up a huge chunk of the Sixers salary in a declining near-30-year-old power forward and a good-at-many-things, great-at-nothing guard/forward whose scoring declined in each of the next four seasons. Hold that thought.

On August 10 of this year, the Sixers acquired Andrew Bynum from the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team deal that netted the Lakers Dwight Howard. You’re never going to believe this, but prior to the trade Bynum had only played in 392 out of a possible 574 regular season games in his young NBA career, largely due to knee problems. That means prior to this season he’s appeared in only 68 percent of regular season games and he’s only 25 years old. If history has shown us anything, it’s that young athletes who have knee issues don’t miraculously rid themselves of them. Ask Greg Oden or Brandon Roy.

The difference? Contrary to the prior two transactions, Andrew Bynum is a player who has yet to reach his prime, or so we think. It’s not every year general managers have to make potentially franchise-altering decisions, as the Sixers must with Bynum. It’s Thanksgiving and Bynum hasn’t put on a Sixer uniform for anything other than a photo shoot. A recent setback is making it look like his Sixer debut won’t be until late January at the earliest (Eds. note: there are new reports suggesting he may miss the whole year). Still, as a Sixers fan, I make that trade a thousand times over.

The Sixers hit gold, as did many other poorly managed teams, with the amnesty provision in the latest collective bargaining agreement. They used their amnesty clause on Brand, ridding themselves of the roughly $18 million they would have owed Brand this season. They still have to pay Brand; it just doesn’t go against their salary cap (Which in and of itself is comical, the fact that all 30 teams get to pick one player they’d prefer to pay to not play for them. Only in the NBA.).

With one of two of Stefanski’s poor contracts off the books, Iguodala’s was next to go. The Sixers were openly shopping Iguodala before the Eastern Conference Semifinals were over. Everyone who’s followed the Sixers for more than five minutes knew Iguodala was out of Philly after last season. The Sixers needed a fresh start. They basically did everything short of putting him on eBay with a “Buy It Now” option. The Sixers new ownership group made two conscience decisions pertaining to Iguodala: that he wasn’t worth what they were paying him, and that with him as their centerpiece, they went as far as they’ll ever go last season when they came within one win of the Eastern Conference Finals (which only happened, ironically, because of a Derrick Rose knee injury). They were spot-on with both presumptions.

This brings us to Andrew Bynum, who I call the ultimate Catch-22. For the record I was absolutely ecstatic when the Sixers acquired him, not because I dislike Iguodala, but for the exact reasons mentioned in the paragraph before this one.

The Sixers made this trade for two main reasons: to rid themselves of Iguodala’s contract, and for the possibility of acquiring their first true franchise player since The Answer, and their first franchise center since Moses Malone. Even knowing Bynum’s injury history they had to make this trade. Again, I do it a thousand times over.

I’m of the opinion that even if the Sixers knew they wouldn’t have Bynum until mid-January prior to making the deal, they’d still make it.

They are paying Bynum a shade under $17 million this year, so far to ride the pine. Andrew Bynum will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and could possibly leave the Sixers with one of the toughest decisions you could ask a franchise to make. Consider the following possibilities, none of which would surprise anyone:

A) Andrew Bynum never returns close to last year’s form, plays less than stellar basketball, plays less than a third of the season and is a non-factor in the playoffs.

B) Andrew Bynum comes back in mid-to-late January and shows signs of greatness, but still misses flurries of games due to his bad knees. The Sixers make the playoffs, but have an early exit with Bynum being less than a major factor.

C) Andrew Bynum returns by the end of January, plays absolutely out of his mind and is a major factor in a deep Sixer playoff run.

As a Sixers fan, you absolutely hope for scenario C. Or do you? Therein lies the issue. Unless the Sixers are confident they can keep a healthy Bynum, with no issues extending from his camp, each scenario proposes its own potential problems come negotiation time.

In scenario A, do you want your franchise to risk being tied into another bad contract for a player with knee issues who can’t stay on the court, setting the team back three-to-five more years? And if they would let Bynum walk, and he becomes a force elsewhere, the origination looks terrible.

In scenario B, Bynum would do just enough to receive high priced contracts from other teams, but not enough for the Sixers to feel 100 percent comfortable giving him a max deal. Ideally they’d like to meet him in the middle in this scenario, perhaps offering Bynum one year less than he wants, for more money per year than they want, and ideally a team option for a fourth or fifth year. (For the record I think this is the most likely possibility. As of right now, no one is offering Andrew Bynum big money to keep their bench warm.)

In scenario C, Bynum is playing in All-Star form for the last third or so of the season while helping the team to a deep playoff run, convincing Bynum that Philadelphia is the place where he should spend the prime years of his career (something they’ve been unsuccessful doing with past free agents).

It’s the ultimate Catch-22.

Lost in this is the major factor of how he plays with his teammates. Is a third of the season enough time to really evaluate that? I doubt it is, although with the shooters surrounding him and a budding Jrue Holiday at point guard, it does seem like a natural fit, but you never know.

Worst case scenario is if Bynum doesn’t want to stay, but the Sixers do want to keep him, they suddenly have the biggest sign-and-trade asset in the NBA this offseason. They could also let him walk, take $17 million off of their salary cap and have a ton of money to spend for the 2014 free agent class (deeper than the 2010 class), although we all know high prized free agents want to play in warm or tax-free cities and states, not Philadelphia.

Best case scenario is Andrew Bynum returns to All-Star form, gels with his teammates and Doug Collins, falls in love with the city, and plays the next five years of his prime here. My gut tells me even at his peak he’d want to stay, when you consider he’s the dominant big man in the conference and the East only has one dominant team at the moment, a team that could break up in 2014. Philly seems like the obvious place to play.

I truly hope the whole bowling incident woke him up as far as his career is concerned. When he dropped the line that “if that happened bowling, what happens dunking?” when addressing the bowling incident, he sounded like a guy who was less than confident in his ability to return to full form. There isn’t one thing that humbles professional athletes more than the feeling of not having it anymore. I hope Bynum takes this to heart, and starts taking his conditioning, his career and his anticipated basketball career in Philadelphia more seriously. If that doesn’t motivate him, I’m not sure what can.

For now, it’s all speculation. Until the verdict, Philly sports fans will do what they’ve been trained to do their whole lives: hope for the best, while being prepared for the worst.

Should the Sixers give Bynum a max deal?

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