Can the Philadelphia 76ers Afford to Commit Long-Term to Andrew Bynum?

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Can the Philadelphia 76ers Afford to Commit Long-Term to Andrew Bynum?
Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

Pity Tony DiLeo. The Philadelphia 76ers general manager has been on the defensive ever since word first broke that Andrew Bynum's knees were (surprise, surprise) in a state of disrepair.

Prior to the Sixers' 116-109 overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday, DiLeo did his best to ward off the rabid locals in the City of Brotherly Love. He told reporters that Bynum will be out indefinitely, that previous timetables (now defunct) had been the products of evaluations from doctors and folks in Bynum's camp and that he and the organization had been as honest and forthcoming about the All-Star center's status as possible from the start:

Still, until Bynum slips into a Sixers jersey and sets foot on the hardwood, the questions are bound to continue. When's he coming back? Will he ever play for Philly? Did the Sixers make a mistake in giving up Andre Iguodala and assorted flotsam to acquire him over the summer?

And, given his history of bad knees and knuckle-headedness, is it in the Sixers' best interest to retain Bynum once he hits unrestricted free agency this summer?

Chances are, 'Drew will garner a max contract from someone, be it a five-year deal in the $100-million range from Philly or a four-year pact from another eager suitor. If Brook Lopez, a notoriously poor rebounder, can max out as a restricted free agent after missing the vast majority of a season with a broken foot (the bane of any big man's existence), then surely, Bynum can expect such royal treatment.

Brett Deering/Getty Images

After all, he'll always be seven feet tall, regardless of the condition of his knees. And his arms will always be long, and he'll (presumably) always be strong and skilled enough to school his opponents on isolation post-ups.

There's also no easy way to expunge from memory the fact that Bynum managed to stay healthy for a full(y truncated) season in 2011-12. Nor can one so readily overlook how dominant he was for the Los Angeles Lakers in that time.

In 60 out of a possible 66 games, Bynum averaged 18.7 points (on 55.8 percent shooting), 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in just over 35 minutes. Furthermore, according to 82games.com, 'Drew was the most efficient "clutch" shooter in the NBA last season.

A stat made all the more remarkable by Kobe Bryant's noted ball-hoggery in key moments.

For his efforts, Bynum was voted into the 2012 All-Star Game as the starting center in the Western Conference and earned a spot on the All-NBA second team. At 24, Bynum's best years appeared to be ahead of him, be they with the Lakers or another organization in search of a centerpiece.

That organization turned out to be the Sixers. At the time, their take from the Dwight Howard trade came off like a coup. In one fell swoop, Philly managed to snag a quality young pivot in an Eastern Conference devoid of them and shed the salary of Andre Iguodala.

Of course, losing an All-Star swingman, All-Defensive performer and Olympic gold medalist of Iggy's stature is never easy. But the Sixers had been dangling him as trade bait for some time, ever since spending the No. 2 pick in the 2009 NBA draft on Evan Turner.

Certainly, it was assumed, the Sixers did well to turn their surplus into a franchise talent. With a young core of Bynum, Turner, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young, Philly would have the proper pieces around which to construct a contender over the long haul.

Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

With Holiday and Thad Young locked in at reasonable rates and Turner not due for a new deal until 2014, the Sixers would have ample financial leeway for the foreseeable future with which to improve.

The question now is, how much of that should the Sixers commit to a guy, in Bynum, who can't seem to escape a trip to the bowling lanes without injury and who might spend the entire season in street clothes as a result?

It's an uncomfortable conundrum, to be sure, and one that Tony DiLeo will have to sort out in due course. Luckily for him (and the Sixers), there's still ample opportunity between now and July 1 to allow Bynum's knees to heal and evaluate all aspects of his progress. As bleak as the outlook is at the moment, Bynum may well be back in action before the Sixers have played through the 68 games remaining on their regular season schedule.

If Bynum returns in time to fill Philly's hole in the middle—and better yet, does so at an All-Star level—then DiLeo's decision, if not a no-brainer, won't be such a difficult one.

And if he doesn't? It might behoove the Sixers to pay the man anyway. Players of his particular profile are so rare in today's NBA that to have one could put a good team over the top.

Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

And frankly, re-signing Bynum could be a pre-ordained sunk cost for the Sixers. Should they let Bynum walk (or hobble) in the summer of 2013, they'll have essentially given up Iguodala, Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vucevic and a first-round pick for Jason Richardson.

The New Orleans Hornets found themselves in a similar predicament this past summer with Eric Gordon. He was the prize of the package the Hornets received from the Los Angeles Clippers in return for Chris Paul last December.

Gordon missed all but nine games last season with a recurring knee injury. However, he performed quite well in that limited action, particularly toward the end of the campaign, when he averaged 20.6 points on 46 percent shooting in the month of April.

Well enough anyway, to start a brief bidding war between the Hornets and the Phoenix Suns. New Orleans opted to match Phoenix's max offer sheet to keep EJ (as Gordon's known) on board. For their expense, the Hornets have seen Gordon in uniform for as many minutes as you and I have played, and don't expect to have him back until December.

Harry How/Getty Images

Yet the money can't yet be judged to have been poorly spent. Gordon's four-year deal has just begun, and had the Hornets relinquished a scoring guard with All-Star potential after giving up the best point guard in basketball to get him, they might never have heard the end of it.

To a certain extent, the same logic applies to the Sixers with Bynum. It's the Rod Blagojevich Argument: They've got this thing, it's bleepin' golden and they shouldn't give it up for bleepin' nothing. Philly can roll the dice with Bynum and keep him.

Or, if the team deems such a move too risky, work out a sign-and-trade with whichever organization isn't quite so fearful of 'Drew's condition.

The difference between Philly and New Orleans—aside from how much each had to give to get what it got—is that the Hornets planned for a lean year or two, and thus, could afford to wait for Gordon to get himself fit.

The Sixers, on the other hand, are built to win now. They've cracked the playoff picture in the East in each of the last two seasons and nearly snuck into the conference semifinals this past spring. They may not be title contenders yet, even with Bynum, but they definitely won't be in the conversation if he's gone altogether.

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Ultimately, DiLeo's calculus could come down to two intertwined factors: who or what else is out there that might provide better value than Bynum for these Sixers, and who or what these Sixers need to maximize the potential of their current core.

Perhaps Philly will find it more prudent to spend lavishly to lure someone like Al Jefferson (unrestricted) or Nikola Pekovic (restricted). Perhaps the Sixers will choose instead to make a run at Dwight Howard or opt for a stopgap like Chris Kaman or former Philly resident Samuel Dalembert. Perhaps DiLeo will determine it best to keep his team perimeter-oriented and spread the wealth more evenly among quality role players in the front court.

Or, perhaps Bynum will crush it once he comes back and all of this conjecture will be rendered moot.

Tony DiLeo can only hope that's the case. In the meantime, you'll have to excuse him; he has a crowd of curious reporters to fend off.

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