No easy answers about the state of the Sixers
So, where is the 76ers organization right now? Certainly many notches below where fans expected it to be when the team announced on Aug. 10 that it had acquired center Andrew Bynum.
Bynum hasn't played a game yet; the peripheral pieces have shown that they are just that; injuries have caused a variety of juggled lineups; and inconsistent play from just about every player but Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young has led to a team that needs to put together a solid winning streak just to get close to .500.
Is there hope that this organization will be a contender anytime soon? A quick look at the good and bad:
In Holiday, who just received his first All-Star selection, the organization has its point guard for at least the next four seasons. He is averaging 19 points and nine assists a game, heading into the weekend, the only NBA player to average those numbers. And he is doing it without Bynum, probably the premier offensive center in the league when healthy. Holiday has jumped from a player tagged with the dreaded "potential" label to someone whom many in the league now call a "potential superstar."
In Young, who is signed for three more seasons, the team has a reliable frontcourt player who can score in double figures, rebound and bring an energy each night that is rarely matched by many others in the league. Yes, Young is a 'tweener who has been forced to play power forward this season, a position for which he is terribly undersized. And putting him at small forward makes him a defensive liability with a questionable outside shot. Still, he can be a valuable player on a team, used in a variety of ways. Ideally, he's probably a sixth man.
While Spencer Hawes has drawn fans' ire for most of his stay in Philadelphia, if examined rationally, he is a very valuable backup, either at power forward or center. He can shoot the ball and pass, and at times he can be a serviceable rebounder. As a backup, he is useful and carries a not-too-heavy contract of $6.5 million next season.
There is also the issue of the team's good contracts, as, not including Bynum's $16.5 million, they have a slew of expiring deals.
What to do with Bynum? Say he does come back and performs admirably for about 20 games at the end of this season. Then what? Sign him to a big contract and run the risk of paying $18 million to $20 million a season on the hope that he can play at least 60 games a season? Risk money on someone who apparently has two knees that seem much older than their 25-year-old owner? What if he comes back, plays a handful of games, starts to feel pain again, and has to be shelved? The gamble then proves disastrous.
And where do you turn after that? There will be ample room under the salary cap with which to work, but it's a limited free-agent market. And will Doug Collins want to stay and oversee yet another rebuilt roster?
And there is still the issue of how Evan Turner fits with Holiday.
Where do they go now?
As has been the case for so many years, there are far more questions than answers with this organization. While I will say I was totally on board with the gamble they took during the summer, it appears it just won't work out.
Throughout the season, I have picked the brains of executives throughout the NBA, getting their thoughts on what the Sixers did, where the team is now, and where it may be headed. Most agreed the trade for Bynum was worth the risk, though some were hesitant.
"I was concerned about the health of the guy," said one Western Conference front-office member. "And they were giving up a lot of assets. It's easy to be Monday morning quarterback, of course. I can see why the move was so exciting for Philadelphia. And I totally understand why they took the risk.
"Bynum is a star, a stud, a franchise player. When that type of deal presents itself, there's sometimes a possibility that you look past the negatives of the deal. They gave up a lot, and you have to wonder if everyone was on board with what they were told about the health of his knees. But it's not fair to really make a judgment on what they did, because Bynum hasn't been on the court."
Said an Eastern Conference higher-up: "If they kept [their roster] intact, they would be a high-40- to 50-win team.
"You have to look at two things: The East isn't as strong as it has been in years past, and Nik Vucevic [now with Orlando] and Jrue Holiday have taken off. Jrue Holiday has taken it to another level, and Vucevic is getting 12 rebounds a game, and Philadelphia needs that.
"I saw [Vucevic] as being a really good offensive player, but I don't think anyone could really read into his rebounding. He's not going to be a rim protector on defense, but he can certainly help in other ways.
"I think they really miss Lou Williams [now with Atlanta]. I see him as a better piece than Nick Young for Doug Collins. Williams is more cerebral; he understood what Collins needed, and Doug got the best out of him."
So where are the Sixers, moving forward? They do have the good contracts, and a decision to make on Bynum. Are they closer to the teams that have been mired in mediocrity for the past 10 years or are they on the verge of busting through, the way many thought they would this season before Bynum's aching knees became the big story?
"When a team says they have cap space, it really means nothing, because most teams can get good cap space," said another executive. "Who's going there? Having an All-Star in Holiday is enticing, but is Dwight Howard going there? I don't think so.
"They have a very, very hard decision ahead of them with Bynum. I think Doug Collins is a fantastic coach and can get the most out of guys, but this group, you just don't know, because they don't have that stud in the middle. But if you did have the stud in the middle, along with an All-Star point guard who I think is only going to get better and better, and a coach like Collins, then you have some really solid pieces. When you're building a team, if you can start with a stud in the middle and an All-Star point guard, especially one who is as young as Holiday - man, that's a great start."
Problem is that stud in the middle might not be have much of a future here, or anywhere, if his knees won't allow it.