You’ve heard it before. Like Cleveland, Philadelphia is a blue-collar city. The fans fall in love with players who lay it on the line every night. Guys who exude passion for their respective sport and wear their emotion on their sleeve (images of Allen Iverson triumphantly stepping over Tyrone Lue and Brian Dawkins’ pre game introduction routine immediately spring to mind). Those dudes are gods in Philadelphia. But if you don’t share the same passion for the sport that Philly sports fans do, they will get on you when it goes bad and eat you alive. Keep that in mind as you read through this piece.
The Trade: Let’s go back to mid-August 2012 when the Philadelphia 76ers acquired Andrew Bynum in a four-team, 12-player, five-pick mega-deal which included mercurial superstar Dwight Howard. The Sixers traded longtime cornerstone Andre Iguodala, unproven second-year center Nikola Vucevic, rookie Moe Harkless and a future first round pick in return for the 24 year-old all-star. Sixers fans were oozing with excitement. The team was coming off a shocking playoff run to the second round and momentum was building; maybe they could finally escape the quicksand of mediocrity that had swallowed the franchise since the Iverson-led teams nearly a decade earlier.
Five days after the trade, over 2,000 fans showered Bynum with love when he was introduced along with Jason Richardson in an unusual public press conference held at the famed National Constitution Center. Chants of “An-drew Bynum!” “Let’s go Sixers!” and the familiar “Beat LA!” reverberated through the halls.Bynum was the man at that time. We salivated over dreams of him carrying the franchise on his thick shoulders into serious contention. Premature comparisons to legendary Sixer centers Wilt Chamberlain and Moses Malone pervaded our minds. Could Bynum be the third great big man to help bring the franchise a title?
Sadly it was just dreams; nothing went right after that glorious sunny August day.
Bynum missed the entire 2012-2013 season, suffering numerous setbacks because of bone bruises in both knees, including the hilariously infamous bowling accident (you can’t make this stuff up). After finally participating in a practice in February, his condition worsened to the point where he elected to have arthroscopic surgery on both knees in March and was officially ruled out for the year.
Reaction 15 Months Later: First of all, the blame is widespread for what is arguably one of the worst trades in Philadelphia sports history. The Sixers knew Bynum was a risk. He had a long history of knee problems and had played more than 65 games just once in seven seasons, missing 166 games (or 30 percent of his teams’ games) with the Lakers.
The Orlando Magic declined to take Bynum because of his knee history. But Sixers new principal owner Joshua Harris was adamant on contending for a championship and after careful evaluation, signed off on the deal. And you can’t fault him for that. Harris said in September that Bynum’s conditioned “ended up being worse than anyone thought,” but based on the information he had at that time, he would make the trade again. I loved that. You can do all the research you want but at the end of the day, sometimes, things just don’t work out.
Last season was nearly unbearable, as the promise of contention slowly dissipated to reveal a very ordinary team with little talent and a burnt out coach/GM in Doug Collins running the organization into the ground.
Fast forward to today. Many Sixer fans are seething with rage because Bynum has suited up for the Cavs after laying a big fat goose egg in Philadelphia. The argument for strongly disliking Bynum is easy to see. As a Laker, Bynum was easy to hate for opposing teams. He had maturity issues, a questionable work ethic (to put it nicely, Phil Jackson never led the Bynum cheering section) and committed one of the dirtiest plays you’ll ever see in a 2011 playoff game. He never gave the Sixers a straight answer, delayed his return date several times and never returned the same passion he was shown from the fans on that hot August afternoon. Some believe he tanked his rehab sessions to keep his knees from worsening before entering free agency this summer. They say Bynum was damaged goods and that the Sixers were duped by the savvy Lakers. They use the bowling incident, his salsa dancing in Spain after the season and his various odd hairdos to justify the vitriol.
Yet Bynum oddly enough is a real human being like the rest of us and should be allowed to live his life. As a professional athlete was bowling while rehabbing a knee injury the smartest idea? Probably not. But if he couldn’t stay healthy BOWLING, how was he ever going to stay healthy playing NBA basketball?
Other fans, though far less, are rooting for Bynum and feel bad for the big man. He’s endured numerous operations and will be dealing with knee problems for the rest of his life. He has chronic knee pain and admitted this week he has contemplated retirement and added that basketball isn’t fun for him anymore and who can blame him? He has arthritic, degenerative knees at age 26. He’s unable to perform at peak level let alone play without pain, during what most would consider a player’s prime years. It’s must be maddening. He’s dedicated his entire life to the roundball and to see his ability to perform curtailed has clearly affected him.
Yet Bynum has already accomplished a ton in this league. Why should I be sorry for a guy who made $16.5 million last year playing in as many NBA games as you or I? A guy who has made over $70 million for his career? A guy who’s won two NBA Championships? A former NBA all-star and All-NBA Second Teamer? Sure money and accolades don’t guarantee happiness, but it sure beats the lives of 99.9 percent of the rest of the population.
That is the dilemma fans face and while I’m somewhere in the middle, I am certain on this: Bynum is the main reason that the Philadelphia 76ers organization is finally under steady guidance and heading in the right direction. Newly hired GM Sam Hinkie made it known that winning 42 games and getting bounced in the first round is not the goal. Consistently contending for a championship is all that matters and the shrewd dealings he’s made in his first four months as GM follow that sentiment.
First-year head coach Brett Brown is a Greg Popovich disciple, credited for developing young players such as Tony Parker. He’s given his young players some freedom and runs actual offensive plays, unlike the controlling Collins. It’s only seven games into the new regime, but it already looks promising. The Villain, AKA Evan Turner, is free from Collins’ doghouse and is finally playing like the player he was drafted to be. Rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams has earned sparkling reviews, earning Eastern Conference Player of the Week for his record setting first week performance.
Without the trade, the Sixers would have brought back the same core last season and likely would have snuck into the playoffs for a third consecutive year. Coach/GM/Dictator Doug Collins, the guy who according to multiple sources wanted to offer KWAME FREAKING BROWN a FIVE-YEAR CONTRACT WORTH $30 MILLION last summer, might still be commanding the sinking ship (gasp). If not for the miserable trade, Hinkie would be scrolling through his analytic spreadsheets somewhere else and Brett Brown would still be sitting beside Popovich. Point guard Jrue Holiday (now a New Orleans Pelican after a draft night trade) would still be running the show while Carter-Williams dazzles in another city.
We owe this entire change of leadership and structure to the miserable failings of the Bynum trade (and credit Harris for overhauling the organization). The Hinkie/Brown tandem is already proving to be an enormous upgrade over the Collins/Rod Thorn/Tony DiLeo trio and with two possible lottery picks in a stacked 2014 draft, roughly $35 million in cap space, intriguing veteran assets and a few promising young players, the Sixers have a real chance to build something sustainable.
As for Bynum this season, he’s played in five of the Cavs first seven games, averaging 5.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 13.8 minutes. He’s made just 9-28 shot attempts (32.1 percent) and is clearly a shell of his all-star self. No 76ers fan should lose sleep over those performances from Bynum in the wine and gold.
On Friday night, Bynum was booed heavily in his ‘return’ to Philadelphia, playing 18 minutes and scoring four points in a disappointing 15-point loss. Of course afterwards, he took a shot at the Philly fans saying the crowd reaction, “was a little weak. Honestly, I thought it was going to be much worse.”
Those comments only solidified Bynum’s spot alongside the cities most hated athletes, joining the hallowed ranks of Michael Irvin, Tye Domi, Kobe Bryant, Scott Rolen, Terrell Owens, Billy Wagner and J.D. Drew.