Entering the 2012-2013 NBA season, many of the basketball pundits attempted to predict whether or not any Eastern Conference team could dethrone LeBron James and the World Champion Miami Heat. Some looked towards Boston, the gritty veterans that nearly defeated the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals last May, if not for two historic performances from James to supplant the Celtics. Others felt that the Chicago Bulls, with the return of their herculean point guard, Derrick Rose, had the frontcourt size to pose problems for the versatile Heat. I firmly believed that the true challengers dwelled in the City of Brotherly Love.
The Philadelphia 76ers entered this campaign fresh off of a physical seven game playoff series with the aforementioned Celtics. The youthful bunch from Philadelphia pushed the Celtics to a full seven games, behind the ingenious coaching from Doug Collins. A rejuvenated franchise rising from behind the shadow of Allen Iverson, the versatile, energetic Sixers possess some vital pieces necessary to counter the champion Heat: an energetic backcourt that trigger a fearsome transition game and versatile perimeter players that could both create their own shots and defend the entire court. What the Sixers lacked was a dominant low post presence. After failing with the injury prone Elton Brand, Philadelphia needed a young, healthy big man to add a dimension to the team that Miami has lacked since their formation three years ago. The man that fit the bill fell into their lap last summer: Andrew Bynum.
Bynum was acquired in a four-team trade with the Orlando Magic, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers– the famous trade that netted the Lakers Dwight Howard. Widely considered the second best center in the game, Andrew Bynum’s movement was hardly an afterthought. To many, he was going to be the piece that put the 76ers in position to win a championship. Combined with the experience gained during last season’s playoff run against the aforementioned Bulls and Celtics, Collins’ crew finally possessed an anchor defensively, along with a low post force on the offensive end. The best part was that the 25 year-old was coming to Philadelphia after his best season in Los Angeles, when he averaged a double-double and played the most minutes in his 7 year career.
However, Bynum’s dominance comes with a caveat of playing a full season only once in his NBA career. Knee problems keep him from ever reaching the ceiling many thought, and still believe, he could attain. Many of the Lakers faithful assert that had he played in the 2008 NBA Finals, which they lost in six games to the Boston Celtics, the series would have been decidedly different.
Not only has Andrew Bynum not played a second for his new team this season, much of his recovery has been questioned and criticized. Earlier this winter and while unable to practice with a deep bone bruise in his left knee, Bynum infamously bruised his other knee bowling. Finally, after numerous setbacks, he was shelved for the season, requiring yet another surgery on both knees to repair the bone bruises that seem to never heal.
What is so disappointing about Bynum’s knee problems is that he is a legitimate top 10 NBA superstar when healthy. A terrifying shot blocker, he also possess a bevy of low post moves that make him nearly unguardable by a single defender on the block (ironically, the only man who can guard him one-on-one with any success is Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder forward who also gives Dwight Howard numerous fits). Above all else, Bynum controls the glass like none other, either eliminating second chance opportunities for an opponent or giving his team an additional possession, a lethal attribute in today’s NBA.
So often in sports, teams make a calculated risk to bring in a player based on their enormous potential, regardless of the other baggage they may carry (See: Randy Moss). For the 76ers front office, the risk involved trading a future first round pick to Orlando, along with shipping Andre Iguodala to Denver. Undoubtedly, they felt that Bynum was going to be the face of the franchise under the new ownership and second year coach, someone budding into his prime to bring Philadelphia new life. However, the risk they took backfired and are now left pondering what the future will bring.
For the Sixers and their fans, all one can hope is that Bynum’s operation will be successful and that he will return to his dominate form. The good news for Bynum is that youth is on his side, even if his past is as gloomy as his future. The rest of the NBA would be wise to keep his status within earshot because if (a huge if) Andrew Bynum finally gets healthy, it would send shockwaves throughout the NBA. The Miami Heat, winners of 23 straight games and counting, may very well repeat this June. However, if Andrew Bynum and the 76ers ever come calling, it will be a tall task for anyone, including the Heat, to adequately answer.