Excitement. Dissapointment. Angst. Frustration. Anger. Disgust. The range of emotion experienced by this Sixers fan since the Sixers made the franchise-altering trade for Andrew Bynum last summer has been draining. If you're in the "just get rid of him," camp, I get it. I understand the logic behind making him someone else's problem. I completely get why people want to turn the page, but I don't think it's necessarily the right thing to do for this team.
Many, many months ago when Bynum taking the floor this season seemed inevitable, we tossed around a philosophical discussion in the comments. Say Bynum would always be an injury risk. Say he's probably doomed to miss time frequently for the rest of his career. What would your floor be, in terms of time on the floor, for a maximum contract? Put it this way, would you pay $100M for a shot at home court in the playoffs 2 times over the next 5 years? Would you pay the max for maybe one trip to the Finals? How about having him on the floor for three playoff runs over five years? Would that be enough? We can get into the risk assessment of the whole thing, what are the odds he'll be able to play x number of games? How diminished will his skills be if he is able to get on the floor? All of these factors matter, but when it comes right down to it, I don't see a whole lot of options.
If you want to be one of the relevant teams in this league you have to be lucky, you have to call a premier city your home, or some combination of both. Miami got lucky when they got Wade, then they used leverage to get LeBron and the hanger-on. The Clips got lucky (finally) when they drafted Griffin, then the league leveraged that to put Chris Paul with him. The Lakers have been leveraging their location for decades. They leveraged their location to get lucky in the draft when Kobe only wanted to play in LA. The Spurs got lucky in the draft twice. The Thunder got lucky three straight years in the draft (and then the fact they aren't one of the premier markets made them just give up one of their winning lottery tickets for nothing).
Tanking proponents will tell you the only way to build a champion in the current NBA is through the draft. This isn't entirely true. I'm not even sure it's partially true, at this point. Two small-market teams have won a championship in the past 23 years (three if you count Houston as small market, or non-premier). The Ben Wallace Pistons are an outlier, so let's ignore them for a moment. The other two are the Spurs and the Rockets. Yes, both of those teams "won" the lottery. Not only did they win the lottery, they won the lottery in a year when a generational talent was available to be drafted. Then they made smart moves around that player (or players in the Spurs' case). Let's be more specific. Both San Antonio and Houston won the lottery in a year when a generational big man was available (corrects error on my part Hakeem was the #1 pick).
Perhaps the Thunder will join this list at some point, and if they do it would be for four reasons: (1) They won the lottery in year when a generational talent was available, (2) That generational talent was very bad in his rookie season, bad to the point where they were able to get another really good player in the draft the following season (3) Both of those players weren't good enough together the following year to move the team out of the lottery and they got another great player (4) Their generational player doesn't seem to mind playing in Oklahoma City. They've already blown #3 on this list of dumb luck. Whether 1,2 and 4 will be enough to bring a championship to OKC remains to be seen. Either way, is the OKC model repeatable? Is it something to hang your hat on if your team is terrible? More importantly, is it a reason to root for your team to be horrible, year after year after year? OKC is even more of an outlier than the Wallace-era Pistons were, so stop using them as the linchpin of your argument (they also haven't won anything to this point).
Here's the point I've taken way too long to get to. Winning the draft lottery doesn't matter unless you're a premier market. The traditional method of building a contender through the draft is 100% myth. It's out-dated. Cleveland won the most important lottery ever, they drafted a home-town hero, got to the Finals once, then watched him walk out the door. They won the lottery again and now they should be counting down the days until Irving leaves them, title-less. In today's NBA, if you aren't a premier market, winning the lottery means you've got a finite amount of time to put a significant roster around your star before he flees for greener pastures, and you're starting from absolute zero because you had to be bad enough (and lucky enough) to get the guy in the first place. You have two legitimate options for filling out the roster, through the draft (where you're probably drafting in the teens, at best, going forward), or via free agency. Of course, no really good free agents want to come play in your small market when they can go play in Miami or LA. So you have two options, you can play it smart with your cap space and let your superstar become more and more impatient until he leaves, or you can overpay for the Antawn Jamisons of the world, because they're the best free agents you can get to come play in your second-rate city, you cap yourself out, don't really put together a solid roster, and he walks anyway.
The conventional logic simply does not work. If you want to compete as a second or third-tier team, you have to take risks. And I mean big risks. I mean putting all your chips down on a guy with crumbling knees, because a great player with solid knees simply won't come play for your team. Bynum's work ethic might be shit. I have no way of knowing. His knees might be completely trashed. He might limp through the rest of his career or never even set foot on the floor again. It's a huge, huge unknown. The only thing I know for sure is if Bynum takes the floor for a full season, the Sixers have a shot at contention. If Bynum can limp through 40 games, get the Sixers the 8 seed, and then be healthy for the playoffs, they can be a contender. If I talk to the doctors and they tell me there's a five percent chance Bynum will be healthy going forward, I'll take it.
Look at it this way: If the Sixers sign Bynum and he never plays another game, they've lost cap space for the next couple of years. So what? I'd rather set that money on fire than save it to spend on a guy like Al Jefferson or Josh Smith. And if you think they're going to be able to turn the cap space into a free agent superstar, give me one example of a superstar going to a team on the Sixers' level as a free agent (or even via trade). Deron Williams is the only example, and he would've left if they were still the New Jersey Nets. Brooklyn is a great example. They're at least adjacent to a premier market and the only way they could put a playoff team on the floor is to take a gigantic risk to get Deron, then trade a lottery pick for a mid-level win, then re-sign that mid-level wing for too much money, then trade for a second-tier star lugging the worst contract in the league with him, then max out their own injury-prone big man.
If you want to have a conversation with me about the right way to build a contender in the NBA, the first words out of your mouth better be "move your team to Los Angeles." Short of that, there is no right way. There is no traditional way. There are only risks. There are only questionable decisions that leave a bad taste in your mouth and there is only making a blind leap of faith and taking a chance on a guy who hasn't earned it, doesn't deserve it and probably won't live up to it. It's either that or spend a bunch of money on a guy like Josh Smith, build a 45-win team around Jrue and whoever and pretend like you're building toward something bigger, waiting for that big break to happen. Or go the other direction. Get rid of enough talent so that you can be truly bad, win the lottery, in the right year, then spend 4-7 years preparing yourself for his departure.
So here's my plan for this summer. Take a contributor at #11 because this draft is terrible and this team needs role players on rookie contracts. I'd prefer a shooter. Then, the second free agency opens, you call Chris Paul and offer him a max contract. When he laughs at you and hangs up, you call Dwight Howard to offer the same. When he won't even take your call, you sit down with all of Bynum's medical records. As soon as you ascertain he will be able to walk at some point in the next three years, you don't dick around. You offer him a three-year max with a vesting team option for the fourth year (if he plays x games and/or the Sixers advance past the second round in the playoffs at any time in the first three years, it becomes a player option for the fourth year). You tell him this is your opening offer, and you want the opportunity to top any offer from another team (because you can top any other offer, that's the only thing you got in the trade last summer, the ability to out-bid everyone else). You don't lowball him. You don't let the emotions of this lost season cloud your judgment. You get Bynum to sign on the dotted line. If it doesn't work out, the only thing you've legitimately lost is some of Josh Harris' cash and the opportunity to waste that money on Al Jefferson and put a 45-win team on the floor for the next three years. You can still tear the team apart and be as bad as you want to be in the draft for the foreseeable future, if that floats your boat.
Here's the executive summary: The Sixers need to act desperately because they, like about 25 other teams, are in a desperate situation.