Sixers gambling on Andrew Bynum
Is Philly's new center the next cornerstone or just another cause for concern?
PHILADELPHIA -- When Andrew Bynum was introduced on opening night alongside his Philadelphia 76ers teammates last week, he received a huge roar even though he was wearing a suit and had yet to even practice in a Sixers uniform, much less play a game. It matched the enthusiasm with which he was greeted in August, when more than 1,000 fans turned up at the news conference following the blockbuster trade that brought him to town.
Those cheers are within the honeymoon period he's still enjoying. They're for not just Bynum, but the entire franchise. Despite a 1-2 start that's been hampered by injuries to Bynum and fellow new arrival Jason Richardson, this has been the most anticipated season in Philly since Allen Iverson was in his prime. Neither will play tonight when the Sixers get their first national exposure this season when they play the New Orleans Hornets on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET.
But this season isn't just about anticipation, it's about risk.
The risk involved in their summer deal isn't in the talent, as most believe the Sixers ended up a winner. After considering various trade proposals involving Andre Iguodala for a few seasons, they finally pulled the trigger on a move that brought them the rarest of commodities: a young All-Star center.
The issue is just how big the team can bet on Bynum with his questionable injury history, which is a true conundrum.
During that August introduction at Constitution Center in downtown Philly, the fans loved it when he mentioned that he was interested in staying long term and playing near where he grew up. He's scheduled to be a free agent next summer, and as always, keeping stars is a major issue for every team.
The big decision, though, might not be as much Bynum's as the Sixers'. After trading Iguodala, draft picks and two promising young players -- Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless -- the team is now invested in Bynum. That was not a one-year rental price, nor do the Sixers want a rental. They want a franchise player. So if they don't lock him up long term, the trade will not have made much sense.
But with Bynum's ongoing knee issues, that's not a simple decision -- even if he proves to be the game-changer the Sixers believe they've landed.
This, of course, is hardly a new situation in the NBA. The New York Knicks bet on Amar'e Stoudemire's knees in 2010, giving him a $100 million contract even though no insurance company wanted to back the risk. The New Orleans Hornets bet on Eric Gordon's knee last summer, matching a max contract offer from the Phoenix Suns, who were willing to make a bet of their own. Both players are out with knee injuries and have uncertain futures.
There are examples that go back decades. Just Google Brandon Roy.
It was different management and different ownership, but the Sixers themselves recently have been bitten by risky investments. In 2008, they gave Elton Brand an $80 million deal as he was coming off an Achilles injury. He was never the player they thought they were getting, and the new management cut him this past summer through the amnesty provision.
The Los Angeles Lakers were concerned enough about Bynum's knees that in 2009 they were willing to give him only a three-year guaranteed deal, even though they were sold on his potential. Then in August, they were happy to trade him for Dwight Howard, a player coming off major back surgery, because Howard was considered less of a risk.
It's one thing to invest heavily in a star, then suffer the bad luck of watching him get hurt. It's another when the team knows it's rolling the dice.
So even now, despite all of the justifiable excitement around Bynum, the Sixers are again in a gray area. It's an uncomfortable situation, which perhaps is one of the reasons the team already has been sensitive about Bynum's health.
Bynum has a history of knee problems and has had surgeries on both knees. He also already has had two procedures since arriving in Philadelphia: The first was the trendy Orthokine therapy in September in Germany. Then he received lubrication injections that have been a part of his preseason routine the past several years.
The Sixers first estimated he'd miss just three weeks in October, but now say he's out indefinitely because of a bone bruise in the knee area. All of this has become a touchy topic, as the team is fighting the conjecture they traded for damaged goods.
Bynum turned 25 last month. That means he's both a potential cornerstone for years to come, as well as a cause for concern.
It already has led the team to engage in a public relations battle as Bynum recovers. After there was some local speculation that Bynum was injured more seriously than the team was letting on, Sixers CEO Adam Aron went on Twitter to say that Bynum would be fine, the procedures were non-invasive and the team was being prudent for the long haul.
Then, on the eve of the opener, the team put out a statement repeating its optimism about Bynum's health. It also contained a statement from general manager Tony DiLeo that lauded the Sixers' "intriguing" preseason, when they went 6-1 without Bynum.
Generally, it seems the team is being open about what's going on. And it believes -- a reasonable belief -- that when Bynum gets on the floor, he will play like an All-Star and the questions will be put to rest.
When the team pulled off its stunning trade, it was already in the midst of a roster makeover and adding players that would help the 76ers play even smaller and faster. They used the cap space from the Brand move to acquire Dorell Wright from the Golden State Warriors and to sign Nick Young. They re-signed versatile big man Spencer Hawes, in part because he can play center in small lineups alongside athletic forward Thaddeus Young.
Playing that way, though, has its limits, and the Sixers may have maxed them out last season, struggling at times because of the lack of a true star to rely on at the end of games. Which is why they couldn't say no to the idea of adding a player who could be a difference-maker in the playoffs.
"They're probably going to end up having like a two-quarterback system," said an NBA coach who has studied the Sixers. "They'll feature him and play half-court when he's in the game, and then switch back to playing quicker when he's out. There aren't a lot of teams who have the ability to play that way."
Sixers coach Doug Collins pretty much has said that's his plan and that he's looking forward to getting back Bynum, who also should help the Sixers with his ability to change shots defensively.
"The NBA is a game of matchups. You get a bad match for two minutes, it can cost you 10 points," Collins said. "Pat Riley always used to say that 'Showtime' was for three quarters and the fourth quarter was half-court."
It all makes good sense. All they need is something they don't have yet: cooperation from Bynum's knees.
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