Andrew Bynum’s knees have gotten worse, and the Sixers finally disclosed over the holiday weekend that it’s unclear exactly when Bynum will play NBA basketball again. Which raises three questions:
Did Philadelphia make a mistake trading for Andrew Bynum?
Bynum will be a free agent after this season, and if he leaves without playing a game for the Sixers, the trade will have been a mistake in the most literal sense. Philadelphia gave up its best all-around player for Bynum in Andre Iguodala, but the loss of a borderline All-Star nearing his 29th birthday might only be the third-most significant asset Philly surrendered in swinging for the fences. They also gave up potential cap flexibility, both last summer and going forward, and the equivalent of three mid-tier first-round picks in Mo Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, and the 2015 pick now earmarked for Orlando. The team also sent a future first-rounder to Miami on a draft-day deal for Arnett Moultrie, which kicks in if the Sixers make the playoffs this season. That’s a lot of future assets out the door, and the first-rounders owed to Miami and Orlando make it practically impossible for Philly to use any future first-round picks as sweeteners in a trade.
On the flip side, it’s hard to blame Philadelphia for taking a shot on a top-20 overall player (when healthy) and the rarest of NBA commodities — a legit 7-footer who helps on both sides of the floor. The 2011-12 Sixers were a bad offensive team that didn’t project as a legit title contender, despite the youth of some of their core pieces. Iguodala’s trade value might have increased as the expiration of his contract approached next season, but expiring deals without juicy young assets attached generally don’t yield Andrew Bynum.
But there were alternatives, especially after the Sixers used the amnesty provision on Elton Brand in early July. Philly could have opened up about $20 million in cap space dumping Brand, renouncing the rights to Lou Williams (gone to Atlanta) and Spencer Hawes (back on a two-year deal), and holding off on pouring money into marginal players such as Nick Young, Dorell Wright, and Kwame Brown. That cap space might not have led to anything, especially in a free-agent market in which most of the key targets were restricted. But even if they missed on the big prizes — Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, Eric Gordon — Philly could have tried to fill their big-man need by tossing a poison pill offer at Omer Asik.1 They could have thrown a massive offer at Nicolas Batum, a sweet-shooting and versatile small forward who moves wonderfully off the ball — a must-have skill on any team with Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. Or Philly could have simply inked a couple of productive mid-priced players (who was that Williams guy, again?) and kept a healthy chunk of space open for a potential lopsided trade.
The August Bynum trade on its own actually didn’t preclude any of these potential 2012 moves; the July acquisitions of Young, Brown, Hawes, and Wright did. But those four will earn about $3 million less this season than the sum of Brand’s old salary and Williams’s new one, and the Sixers happened to add almost exactly $4 million in the swap of Iguodala and young assets for the Bynum/Jason Richardson combo. The Bynum move clearly announced bolder ambitions than settling for a wing like Batum or maintaining cap flexibility.
And that boldness is not wrong on its face. Philly has no record of drawing max-level free agents on the open market, and as mentioned above, it’s not as if they broke up a juggernaut. Other teams were interested in playing Philly’s role of taking Bynum as a third-team facilitator in a deal sending Dwight Howard to the Lakers; the Magic didn’t want Bynum, making such a third team a requirement for any Lakers trade. Cleveland’s front office debated Bynum, and Houston, Howard’s most ardent suitor, was interested in Bynum as a second-place prize. Everyone knew Bynum’s knees were an issue, and while some teams were frightened about those knees — and Bynum’s reputation as a moody guy — there is only so much medical information a team can know before a deal.
It’s fascinating to play the “What if?” game here: What if Philly had passed on playing the facilitator role in fear of Bynum’s knee issues? Would Howard still be in Orlando? Almost certainly not. Would Brooklyn have gotten back in the game on January 15, when Lopez, scoring like gangbusters now and playing better defense, becomes trade-eligible under his new max deal? Or would the Magic have dealt Howard to Houston in August? And if that had happened, where would James Harden be now?
With Houston out of the Harden sweepstakes, would Toronto (Jonas Valanciunas and picks), Golden State (Klay Thompson and other assets) or Utah (two young players and a couple of picks) gotten deeper into Harden talks? The removal of Houston might have simply bought Oklahoma City more time to feel out its internal finances, monitor Kendrick Perkins as an amnesty candidate, and take Harden’s temperature on accepting a five-year deal after the season. It has been reported widely that before October 31 Oklahoma City could offer only a four-year extension to Harden, having used its five-year “designated player” bullet on Russell Westbrook. But had the Thunder controlled Harden’s rights this summer in free agency, they would have been the only team allowed to offer him a five-year contract at that time. Would Harden have been willing to accept a discount in exchange for that extra year? It’s unclear, and the Thunder’s total payroll obligations would have shot up toward $100 million even given that discount and the Perkins amnesty.
It’s fun to think about, but think hard before you lambaste Philly for going all-in on Bynum.
Are the Sixers even a playoff team now?
It seems an offensive question. Philly almost made the conference finals last season, and they’re 8-6 despite missing Bynum all year and Jason Richardson for four games.
But they have a negative scoring margin (-18) against what has been one of the 10 easiest schedules in the league — and a home-heavy one to boot, with nine of the first 14 in Philly. In the big picture, this looks like the same no-offense, all-defense team that played sub-.500 ball over the last 45 games of the 2011-12 season and had zero interior presence on offense; the Sixers rank just 26th in points per possession, even after two productive scoring games over the weekend against Phoenix and Oklahoma City. They’re over .500 mostly because of good crunch-time play (an early reversal from last season) and a stingy defense that slipped from second in points allowed per possession to seventh after leading in those same two games.
If Philly’s defense hovers around the top five as the schedule gets tougher, it should be able to make the playoffs — especially if Chicago, Indiana, and Toronto continue to struggle more than expected. It’s almost impossible to miss the playoffs with a top-five defense, and still very hard with a top-10 defense.
But should that defense slip into the no. 8–no. 12 range, the Sixers will be vulnerable if the offense doesn’t improve. Philly lacks a rim protector and doesn’t do anything special in terms of defensive tactics; they overload the strong side of the court like just about everyone, funnel side pick-and-rolls toward the baseline, and protect the paint above all else. But they’re good at those things and generally act in unison; Philly once again ranks near the top of the league in limiting shots and makes in the restricted area, protecting against corner 3s, and foul avoidance. Holiday and Thaddeus Young are wreckers on defense, and their skill, plus Philly’s solid coaching and on-a-string mentality, has been enough so far to make up for Iguodala’s loss.
The team’s offense has also shown some underlying signs of progress that could hint at growth to come. Holiday’s improved pick-and-roll game, combined with an influx of spot-up shooting, has produced a healthier shot selection. Philly is taking about five more 3s per game over last season, and most of the increase has come via a doubling of short corner 3s; Turner has already made as many corner triples so far this season (six) as he did all of last season, and if he can make that shot semi-consistently, Philly’s offense won’t suffer as badly when opponents have Turner’s man rove into the lane (which is always). Philly has also managed to embrace the 3 without sacrificing shots at the rim, per Synergy Sports and NBA.com. Turner and Holiday rank among the league’s most viciously efficient isolation players so far, and Holiday has clearly improved his creativity (including a strong left hand), the types of passes in his bag, and his ability to earn free throws.
Philadelphia isn’t Denver or Houston in terms of shot selection; they still rank below average in terms of shots at the rim, they don’t get to the line or finish well at the basket, and they take a lot of mid-range shots. But they’ve redistributed some of those unhealthy mid-rangers, especially from the runner/floater range, into more productive areas.
That’s a good start, but it’s unclear which of these trends will last. Philly is a decent bet to be a bottom-four playoff team without Bynum. But that leads us to the final question.
What happens next?
This is the $64,000 question. It appeared a fait accompli that Philly would give Bynum a max deal, and that contract, combined with Holiday’s extension and Turner’s future cap hold, would essentially take Philly out of the free-agent game for the next two or three years — at least. But if Bynum is gone, the Sixers this summer could have enough room for a post-rookie max contract — and perhaps even more space, if Brown declines his $2.9 million player option.
They could have a similar amount of space sans Bynum in the summer of 2014, even factoring in Turner’s gargantuan $13.3 million cap hold — almost certainly a much bigger number than Turner’s actual future salary.
Turner is showing some early progress, jacking up his assists and free throws while hinting at a usable corner 3. He’s only a so-so defender, but he should develop into a solid option on that end against both wing positions. Turner’s shooting is an issue, especially since his herky-jerky off-the-bounce game does not work well when it comes to blowing by defenders running to close out on him. But he’s not killing Philadelphia’s offense this season; the Sixers are scoring a bit better when Turner plays, and the Holiday/Richardson/Thad Young trio — wildly productive so far — hasn’t suffered much at all when Turner joins as a fourth cog, per NBA.com’s stats database.
There’s a useful NBA player here, and if he emerges, a Holiday/Young/Turner core with cap space isn’t a bad way to move forward. But there is a gaping hole where Bynum was supposed to be. If he misses the whole year, Philly might be able to bring him back on the cheap, but they’ll face potential competition from 13 other teams set to have max-level cap room and (perhaps) an appetite for risk.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Toronto’s Late-Game Awfulness
Toronto is 1-7 in games in which the scoring margin has been at three or fewer points anytime in the last three minutes of regulation or overtime, per NBA.com. They are a league-worst -41 in those games, with the latest indignity coming in Sunday’s double-overtime loss to the Spurs, which featured a five-second violation and Dwane Casey’s puzzling decision to sit an active Ed Davis in favor of an ice-cold Andrea Bargnani.
Bad luck has played a role here; remember George Hill’s buzzer-beating floater, Charlotte’s uncalled foul on a potential Bargnani buzzer-beater, and Al Jefferson’s game-tying 3-pointer — the second triple of his career? Injuries to Landry Fields and Alan Anderson have also limited Casey’s ability to match up with small lineups in specific late-game situations.
But some of his substitution patterns have been puzzling, including over-playing Bargnani and showing little trust in Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross — even when those guys are going well. A lack of faith in rookies is understandable, but some of Toronto’s weaker off-ball defenders — Bargnani, Jose Calderon, and DeMar DeRozan — have really hurt the Raps in crunch-time possessions.
2. The Lakers’ “Snug” Pick-and-Roll
Teams are getting smarter about designing side pick-and-rolls in ways that make it hard for defenses to force the ball handler toward the baseline — and away from the middle. The Lakers’ method: dumping the ball to Kobe Bryant on the right block and having Pau Gasol sneak down from the 3-point line to set a pick for Kobe below the foul line — a pick around which Bryant can dribble up and toward the center of the foul line as Gasol rolls toward the hoop. David Lee and Monta Ellis got quite good at this play last season with Golden State, but they didn’t have Dwight Howard waiting on the opposite block as a lob option should Howard’s man help on Gasol or Kobe.
3. Damian Lillard’s Defense
Most rookies struggle on defense, and Lillard’s offensive game is ahead of even the highest expectations, so all is good here in the big picture. But Lillard has really struggled defensively. He’s often caught way out of position against on-ball screens, and sometimes gets stuck so far under them as to take himself out of the play. He’s had major trouble navigating off-ball screens, and Deron Williams, a master at moving around the court without the ball, got away from Lillard over and over — until Terry Stotts hid Lillard on Keith Bogans. Dion Waiters is having some of the same issues, and Kyrie Irving did last year; Williams could still be seen two weeks ago in Brooklyn shaking Irving via a thicket of off-ball screens. Lillard will get it, but in the meantime, it’s almost a relief to be reminded that point guard defense does matter.
4. James Johnson’s Look
Sacramento’s starting lineup is functioning better without Johnson (and Isaiah Thomas), but Johnson continues to bring a unique style game — mutton chops, headband, and eyewear that looks something like NBA in-game bifocals.
5. The Disappearing Ersan Ilyasova
Egads. Even after last night’s heroic second half, Ilyasova is shooting 35 percent overall and 22 percent from deep, and both his free throws attempted and rebounding are way down. He’s always been a vulnerable post defender against bulky bigs, and he’s losing minutes (and now his starting job) to the crazy-time arms of Ekpe Udoh, John Henson, and LARRY SANDERS! (caps lock and exclamation point mandatory). Those guys are entertaining, but this obviously wasn’t the plan, and the Bucks need Ilyasova to right himself — if only to prop up his trade value eventually.
6. Luis Scola, Flasher-Passer
A central tenet of most NBA defenses is that against a pick-and-roll it is the responsibility of the defender guarding the man in the weakside corner — the corner opposite from the direction in which the point guard dribbles over the pick — to dive into the middle and help on the big man rolling to the rim. Smart offenses design plays to take advantage of that strategy.
A good one from Phoenix: They’ll have their center, Marcin Gortat or Jermaine O’Neal, set a high screen for Goran Dragic and roll down the right side of the lane as Dragic dribbles toward his left. At the same time, Luis Scola will flash from the baseline to the left elbow — a typical action for bigs with good mid-range jumpers. But Scola isn’t looking to shoot; instead, almost immediately upon the catch, he’ll sling the ball to Jared Dudley on the right wing, knowing Dudley’s defender is the aforementioned weakside corner guy responsible for diving into the lane at Gortat/O’Neal. A smart, quick-hitting play that has gotten Dudley open looks.
7. Miami’s All-White Jerseys
Hideous, especially in low-definition, where you can’t even make out names or numbers. I’d rank them even below the Heat’s all-black numbers in the list of Miami alternate jerseys. These pink-and-orange duds are the best of that lot, combining some ABA throwback details with just enough Miami cheesiness.
8. Ryan Anderson’s Version of the Cross-Screen
The typical cross-screen involves a guard/wing setting a pick under the rim for a big man, and it’s designed to give that big man some temporary space to set up post position on the opposite block from which he started. Anderson, a long-range gunner, uses the cross-screen in his own style — by simply continuing all the way to the opposite corner for a catch-and-shoot 3. A smart use of a unique player.
9. The Gray Trim in Houston’s Jerseys
This is the work of George Blaha, Detroit’s play-by-play TV guy for nearly 40 years. At first it seemed like an attention grab — a needless attempt to coin some sort of basketball colloquialism when “banker” or “bank shot” would do. But damn if “glasser” hasn’t grown on me over the years, to the point where it pops into my head even when someone knocks down a bank shot in a non-Pistons game. Flashing a really nice glasser this year, by the way: Brook Lopez.