How Lost Season Will Impact Andrew Bynum's Value on Free-Agent Market

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 1, 2013

If Andrew Bynum ever plays a game for the Philadelphia 76ers, it won't come during the 2012-13 regular season.

UPDATE: Thursday, Mar. 18, 9 p.m. ET by Zach Buckley

Bynum will undergo arthroscopic surgery on both knees and miss the remainder of the regular season, according to what league sources told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. The procedure will involve cleaning out loose debris from the knees to try to alleviate the pain and swelling he's experienced.

"After many months of rehabilitation and consulting with numerous doctors, Andrew and the doctors treating him determined that this is the best course of action at this point," Sixers general manager Tony DiLeo said in a press release (via Jason Wolf of USA Today). "We will continue to monitor and evaluate his status moving forward."

While DiLeo was tasked with speaking on behalf of the franchise in the press release, there is some debate over whether DiLeo will actually have a relationship with the organization beyond this season.

According to Wojnarowski, Bynum's knee problems are "degenerative" and "his career could be in jeopardy." The Sixers knew there were risks involved when they cut ties with their best player (Andre Iguodala), a rising star (Nikola Vucevic) and their first-round pick (Maurice Harkless) in exchange for the oft-injured big man.

But the allure of adding what they saw as a cornerstone piece was worth the risk in their eyes.

According to what sources told Wojnarowski, there could be "significant changes" to both the Sixers coaching staff and front office. The team entered the season with championship hopes, but has stumbled to a 25-40 record in Bynum's absence.

---End of update---

The 25-year-old battled various ailments throughout his first seven seasons in the league, which he spent with the Los Angeles Lakers. He played more than 65 games just once in his career, playing all 82 in his sophomore season of 2006-07, but did play in 60 of last season's strike-shortened 66-game schedule.

Last season also marked the first time that he was featured as a No. two option, serving as the third wheel behind Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol during L.A.'s championship runs in 2009 and 2010. Bynum responded by setting career highs nearly across the board, including 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.

A lost season for Bynum leaves a major question for a franchise that thought it had found its biggest answer less than 12 months ago. DiLeo didn't sacrifice the organization's best player since Allen Iverson (Andre Iguodala) and a pair of young up-and-comers (Maurice Harkless and Nikola Vucevic) for a one-and-done stop for Bynum.

Bynum is an unrestricted free agent at season's end. The 7'0", 285-pound bruiser was all but guaranteed to receive a max offer over the summer. Fresh off his breakout campaign in 2011-12, he held the greatest potential of any back-to-the-basket player in the league.

Of course, season-long injuries in both of his knees put that money in serious jeopardy. As frustrating as they've been, they grow far more ominous considering the big man's lengthy injury history.

A glimpse of a healthy Bynum could have gone a long way toward instilling the confidence in DiLeo (or any GM for that matter) that would result in shelling out major money to a battered behemoth. But according to Bynum, that was never enough to rush his rehab:

I think being healthy is more important than anything else. If I'm healthy, I'll get a deal, but I have to be able to play. And I need to get to the point with my body that I'm able to play, however long that takes. … I don't know exactly how it's going to pan out. I can't predict the future. But I'm going to play when I'm healthy, and right now that's not the case.

Make no mistake; someone's going to gamble on Bynum, whether he returns to play this season or not.

After all, fellow seven-footer Greg Oden has reportedly drawn interest from a host of teams, per Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer. And he's done so despite playing just 82 games since the 2008-09 season and zero since the 2009-10 season. (Even with this lost season, that's 114 fewer regular season games than Bynum has played over that stretch, 136 games including the playoffs.)

The Sixers are the most logical team to sign Bynum. DiLeo (or the Sixers next GM) may feel pressured to keep him around to salvage something out of a gamble that continues to look worse with every impressive outing from Iguodala (12.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game with the Denver Nuggets), Vucevic (12.4 points and 11.5 rebounds with the Orlando Magic) and Harkless (6.8 points and 4.1 rebounds with Orlando).

But they're not the only team that makes sense.

The Portland Trail Blazers have long gambled on bigs, drafting both Oden and another injury-prone player, Sam Bowie. Portland's also been shopping for an upgrade at the center position for some time, throwing a max offer at Roy Hibbert last summer that the Indiana Pacers eventually matched.

The Phoenix Suns could be an option. They're still searching for a franchise center after coming up short on attempts to land Eric Gordon, Rudy Gay and Josh Smith. They've also got a world-class training staff that has breathed new life into a number of apparent DOA veterans.

The Cleveland Cavaliers also seem to be a good fit. Nearly all of their best players are working on rookie contracts. They've also been one of the most oft-reported suitors of Oden, obviously seeking a frontcourt complement to rising superstar point guard Kyrie Irving. Oden is reportedly intrigued by the team's connection to the famed Cleveland Clinic (according to Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer), which could be equally as appealing to Bynum.

The Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks are all potential suitors as well. Bynum could be a high-risk, high-reward option in free agency for the Mavericks and Hawks should the teams be inclined to use some of their massive cap space if their first options don't pan out. The Rockets are reportedly ready to offer Bynum a contract over the summer, according to what sources told Philadelphia's FOX 29 reporter Howard Eskin.

Where should Bynum's contract demands lie? He was a surefire max-contract player heading into the season, but just how much damage has a year's worth of injuries done to his value?

When heading to the negotiation table, agents and executives love bringing their versions of prior comparable deals.

Bynum's side might be bringing a deal similar to the one secured by Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry. Curry signed a four-year, $44 million contract extension before the season despite a two-year battle with a nagging ankle injury. The point guard's side argued the team was getting a steal given his talent, while the front office felt it couldn't, in good faith, go any higher based on his injury history.

Bynum's future employer (Philly or otherwise) might balk at that kind of contract. He has a more extensive, varied injury history, with multiple ligaments keeping him off the floor. The $9-11 million annual range seems reasonable, but teams may hesitate to make more than a two- or three-year commitment.

There will undoubtedly be some performance incentives included in the contract's language. Whether that's a simple bonus clause for appearing in a certain number of games or something more colorful, like the extra $500,000 Glen Davis worked into his contract with the Boston Celtics for meeting certain weight requirements.

In other words, Bynum's free-agency future is as clear as mud.

The fact that's he now lost for the season only further complicates things.