If you want to win big in the NBA, at some point, you have to roll the dice.
Just ask the Philadelphia 76ers. They seem to have come up snake eyes since acquiring Andrew Bynum this past August. Bynum's only appearance in a Sixers uniform came during the team's media day, when they knew their new All-Star center would be out injured for most of training camp.
But the timetable for Bynum's return was pushed back again and again, until Sixers GM Tony DiLeo came out in late November and did away with timetables entirely. As he told the attendant media at the time (via John N. Mitchell of The Philadelphia Inquirer):
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"I just want to emphasize that we have been forthcoming and consistent with the information. We have said all along that we need some patience, and that this is hard to predict this healing process and that Andrew is the indicator and how his body reacts is how we can take the next step in his rehab program. The bottom line is that Andrew is out indefinitely; we don't know when he'll be back. Andrew is the only person who can answer that."
Bynum's own answer was hardly revelatory. He'd been working hard to rehab his right knee after going to great lengths (i.e. flying to Germany for Orthokine treatment, having his knee injected with a lubricant) to prepare himself for a contract year in Philly.
Then he went bowling, and whatever he did whilst on the lanes contributed to a setback in the other knee. And lo, did the blogosphere chuckle.
But such was the risk inherent in any non-rehab-related physical activity for Bynum. Try as he might to relieve himself of responsibility for his actions by pointing to the relative innocuity of bowling next to jumping and dunking, there's the not-so-small matter of Bynum jeopardizing his recovery at all (in a contract year, no less) in an activity known to require the very legs that so trouble him.
But such, too, was the risk the Sixers took when they gave up an All-Star (Andre Iguodala), two recent first-round picks (Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless) and a future first-rounder in the four-team trade that brought Bynum to the City of Brotherly Love.
They knew they were getting a 25-year-old kid with a knack for knuckle-headedness. They also knew they were entrusting said knucklehead with a starring role—a role that inherently bestowed leadership responsibilities upon the broad shoulders of a two-time NBA champion—on a young, up-and-coming squad.
And they knew full well that Bynum might not be physically capable of contributing on the court. As DiLeo reiterated in early December (via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today):
"At the time of the trade we had four doctors look at his MRI. We knew it was a calculated risk. We also knew we were getting the second-best center in the league, a franchise type player. We took that risk. His knees now and the MRIs are not the same. It's a different type situation. But we are still looking at big picture and long term. We're hopeful that after this situation heals we can get him back on the court and he's got a future here."
The Sixers certainly have to think that way. They surrendered a king's ransom for a princely player whose contributions to the cause thus far are reminiscent of a pauper's.
But can DiLeo and his operatives in Philly's front office be faulted for pursuing Bynum in the first place?
On the one hand, the Sixers were a young team that might've already reached its proverbial ceiling in a seven-game loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2012 playoffs. They were fortunate to see Derrick Rose's knee give out in the first round and made the most of their luck by pushing a paper-thin Celtics squad to the brink of elimination thereafter.
For all the hindsight bellyaching about giving up Iggy, it's easy to forget that he'd been central to trade rumors in Philly for some time. Iguodala was a quality player, to be sure, but his prominent role on the wing was impeding the development of former No. 2 pick Evan Turner.
Likewise, Iggy's salary was clogging the Sixers' cap, hindering the financial flexibility growing teams need to improve over time.
As for Vucevic, Harkless and whoever is to become of the future first-round pick (probably a mid-to-late one), no one was ever likely to have a franchise-changing impact.
Unlike Bynum, who on the other hand had the promise of single-handedly vaulting the Sixers into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. He was to be a strong, skilled center in the half of the NBA most devoid of competitors in his specific category. He was to stand as a giant amidst an ever-expanding sea of small-ball teams.
Where once the Sixers were an early-exit-bound smorgasbord of promising guards and wings—with Turner, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young constituting the core—they would, with Bynum, be an inside-out outfit who could torture opposing teams by spreading the floor, slashing to the basket and dumping the ball into the post in equal turns.
It wasn't exactly unreasonable to expect that Bynum would be fit enough to occupy that role, either. He'd played in 60 of a possible 66 games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, missing four on account of a suspension from his playoff smackdown of JJ Barea.
With his knees seemingly soothed, Bynum posted career-bests in points (18.7), shot attempts (13.3) and rebounds (11.8) on the way to All-Star and All-NBA selections.
What more could Philly ask for? There was a void of contenders atop the East (beyond the obvious hegemony of the Miami Heat), and the Sixers now seemed best equipped to fill it.
What should the Sixers do about Bynum?
And they still might be—if Bynum's knees (and his confounding coiffure) permit him to play before the 2012-13 campaign has come and gone.
The Sixers have managed to remain competitive in the East without Iggy and Bynum, despite an offense that once again ranks among the league's worst. The Sixers scarcely score, but they defend like gangbusters more often than not, thanks to a collection of quality athletes and a head coach, Doug Collins, who prioritizes point-prevention and full-throttle effort above all else.
Whether Bynum plays this season or not, his Sixers saga won't be over just yet. They'll once again be forced to weigh risk against reward come July 1st, when Bynum becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Should they sign 'Drew to a massive contract—think five years, in the $100-million neighborhood—similar to what he'd command on the open market, and just hope that he lives up to the investment, even though his body won't likely allow him to do so?
Or do they let him walk and watch the sunken cost of their initial investment weigh down their prospects for improvement for the foreseeable future?
Whoever is left to roll the dice in this situation, Tony DiLeo or someone else, that person better hope for a hot hand.