Andrew Bynum is in the last year of his deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. After substantial excitement, expectations, and jersey sales, the 25-year-old center has yet to appear in a game for the team he was to be the superstar of. Where do the 76ers go from here?
Although Andrew Bynum has vowed to return to the court for the Philadelphia 76ers at some point in the 2012-2013 season, he remains out indefinitely with injuries to both of his knees. Philadelphia sports fans have already seen Philadelphia Phillies’ second baseman Chase Utley’s career derailed with knee issues and should know that Bynum has made a habit out of missing games due to injury. He has missed at least a dozen regular season games every season since the 2006-2007 season, his second year in the league.
Nonetheless, there is no denying the seven-footer’s talent. He broke out last year to the tune of 18.7 PPG, 11.8 RPG, and 1.9 BPG. He also did this while playing with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, both of which take away some offensive opportunities from Bynum. The excitement about what Bynum could do as the number one option was certainly merited.
Bynum’s questionable health combined with his massive upside force upon the 76ers a painfully difficult but pivotal decision. Is it wise to offer Bynum a massive contract at season’s end? Even if Bynum does manage to return by the All-Star break as planned, which is far from a guarantee, the concerns still linger. Severe damage to both knees and an injury-plagued past will not be erased by a return for 1-3 months.
In an ideal world, the 76ers would be able to bring Bynum back on a short deal and give him another chance – a test run of sorts. However, because he is one of the few dominant centers in the NBA at just 25, there is almost no question several NBA teams will be willing to offer Bynum a maximum or near-maximum deal. It is undoubtedly a significant risk to invest this kind of money in such an injury-riddled player.
What are the alternatives? The 76ers are on the hook for about $47 million in salary for the 2013-2014 season (including Kwame Brown’s $3 million player option). This gives them about $11 million to spend in the off-season, part of which will be spent on draft picks and roster-fillers. This leaves Philadelphia without the necessary cap room to pursue a star in free agency such as Chris Paul or Dwight Howard.
We have seen this season what this team can do led by the promising trio of Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, and Thaddeus Young. All three are young, improving, and talented NBA players, but the results have been underwhelming. The 76ers currently stand at 16-23 and show no signs of being able to make a serious playoff run sans Bynum. Could another year of development, improved chemistry, a mediocre draft pick, and $11 in off-season spending push the team to being a serious contender? It seems unlikely.
Because of Bynum’s Bird rights, Philadelphia can exceed their soft salary cap in order to sign him as well as offer him an extra year and additional money per year over what any other team could offer. This presumably gives the 76ers the option of resigning the risky center if they are willing to throw a mammoth deal at him. This would give the 76ers more upside than the Turner/Holiday/Young-led team we are seeing this year. Adding a dominant post presence to it does give it a chance at a serious playoff run, especially given the way the team is built around him.
On the flip side, Bynum certainly could be Elton Brand all over again – a player signed to be the missing piece that never fulfilled his expectations because of a serious injury. If Bynum proved to be exactly that, the 76ers would be in a world of trouble for the duration of Bynum’s contract.
The 76ers could instead hold onto their money, acquire players on short contracts as they did this off-season, and enter the 2014 off-season with loads of financial flexibility and a solid core of young players. This may cause 2013-2014 to be another pedestrian season, but it eliminates the risk of taking on yet another long, large contract that puts the team at a disadvantage for years.
Unless the 76ers get creative in the trade market, they will be faced with this daunting decision. The 76ers would be taking a step backwards by dealing one of their promising young players – Holiday, Turner, and T. Young. Outside of that trio, the 76ers have limited assets and very few ways to clear enough space to sign a stud free agent. Additionally, it will be difficult to sign such a player due to the intense competition they will face from the rest of the league, including the team that holds their Bird rights.
It seems as though the 2013 off-season will define what the future holds for the Philadelphia 76ers. Good luck to the 76ers front office – the fans in Philadelphia will not accept many more seasons as a 7 or 8 seed and an early playoff exit.