The history of the NBA is a tangled web of what-ifs and could-have-beens. This week at The Step Back, we’re going to pull on some of those threads to alternate futures, focusing in on key turning points in the history of players, teams and the league itself, wondering how things could have been different. Welcome to Butterfly Effect Week.
Five years ago this month, the names Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz meant nothing to Philadelphia 76ers fans.
Instead, Andrew Bynum was the new toast of the town.
Fresh off a surprising Eastern Conference semifinals berth — aided by injuries ravaging the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round — the Doug Collins-led Sixers went all-in during the 2012 offseason. As part of the four-way Dwight Howard megatrade, they sent Andre Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets and shipped Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless and a future first-round pick to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum and veteran guard Jason Richardson.
Hundreds of Philadelphia fans crammed into the National Constitution Center to greet Bynum at his introductory press conference, serenading him with chants of his name and roars of approval with every answer. With the big man fresh off a season in which he averaged a career-high 18.7 points on 55.8 percent shooting, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks en route to his first-ever All-Star appearance, the Sixers appeared to have a new franchise cornerstone in place.
It didn’t take long for the honeymoon phase to go up in flames, however.
In September 2012, Bynum traveled to Germany to have Orthokine therapy on both knees — the same procedure Kobe Bryant underwent in the twilight of his career. Right before training camp opened, the Sixers announced he would sit out for three weeks to give the injections time to work properly and to allow an unrelated bone bruise in his right knee to heal. In mid-October, Bynum received another injection in his right knee to help the healing process.
The death blow to Bynum’s Sixers tenure came a month later, when he reportedly did additional damage to his knees while bowling, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. The assorted knee problems caused him to miss the entire 2012-13 season, and the team allowed him to walk as a free agent the following summer.
That chain of events — namely, giving up four valuable assets for someone who wouldn’t ever play a single regular-season minute in a Philadelphia uniform — led to a complete overhaul in the front office and coaching staff. Out went general manager Tony DiLeo and head coach Doug Collins; in came Sam Hinkie and Brett Brown.
What if Bynum had never gone on that ill-fated bowling trip, though? What if his knees didn’t turn into papier-mache, and he instead became Philadelphia’s franchise center over the past half-decade? Brace yourself for the Darkest Timeline Sixers.
Bynum’s ill-fated bowling trip and affinity for outlandish hairstyles turned him into a walking punchline, but no one would be laughing had he remained healthy.
The 7-foot-0, 285-pounder was a physical specimen down in the post, a throwback to when big men dominated the NBA. Fresh off his age-24 season, the Sixers had every reason to believe he could emerge as a nightly 20-10 threat if he stayed healthy. During the Lakers’ run to the Western Conference Finals in 2011-12, Bynum went off for 16.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and an eye-popping 3.1 blocks in 37.6 minutes per game, seemingly cementing himself as the NBA’s next big thing down low.
It’s easy to retroactively mock the Sixers for mortgaging their future to acquire Bynum, but aside from his already terrifying history of knee injuries, he was the exact type of player teams should have stopped at nothing to acquire. Unlike Dwight Howard, he wasn’t a crippling liability at the charity stripe, as he shot 69.2 percent on free throws during his final season in L.A. and 69.0 percent for his career. The big man was also just as capable of erupting for 30 or more points in a given night — which he did seven times in 2011-12 — as he was grabbing upward of 20 rebounds.
Prior to arriving in Philadelphia, Bynum was fresh off a season in which he finished second league-wide in defensive rebounds (517), fourth in total rebounds (709) and sixth in blocks (116). The Lakers were also nearly two full points per 100 possessions better with him on the court (2.3) than on the bench (0.4), mostly due to a decline in defense. With Bynum playing, L.A. allowed opponents to average 100.9 points per 100 possessions, while it coughed up 103.2 per 100 while he sat out. Having a board-gobbling, shot-swatting menace down low gave the Lakers’ perimeter players a strong final line of defense near the hoop.
Even in his dispiriting final NBA campaign in 2013-14, Bynum’s defensive aptitude remained strong. That season, opponents shot 6.8 percentage points worse against Bynum than they did on average. Within six feet of the basket, they were 12.8 percentage points worse.
The year prior to acquiring Bynum, the Sixers already had the league’s third-best defense, trailing only the Derrick Rose-led Bulls and the Big Three-era Boston Celtics. They accomplished that feat despite trotting Hawes out as a starter for 29 games that season and with Jodie Meeks starting 50 games. Add Bynum to the equation and Philadelphia would have been a near-lock for a top-five defense and an above-average offense, as the Sixers finished 17th the prior season in offensive efficiency without the big man.
Rather than embark upon the most ambitious (shameless?) tankjob in NBA history over the past few seasons, having a healthy Bynum likely would have convinced the Sixers to stand pat around their incumbent core.
At the beginning of the 2012-13 season, point guard Jrue Holiday signed a four-year, $41 million extension, theoretically locking himself in as the team’s floor general of the future. Thaddeus Young was entering the second year of a five-year, $44 million deal. Spencer Hawes was beginning a two-year, $13.1 million contract he signed earlier that summer. Former No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner still had two years remaining on his rookie contract. And the Swag Prince of Bel Air himself, Nick “Swaggy P” Young, was in Philly on a one-year, $5.6 million pact to provide instant offense off the bench.
A starting five of Holiday, Richardson, Turner, Young and Bynum doesn’t scream upside, but the 2012-13 Sixers sans Bynum still somehow managed to scrape together 34 wins. That put them only four games behind the eighth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks for the right to be a first-round sacrificial lamb against the LeBron James-led Miami Heat. Considering Bynum racked up a career-high 8.0 win shares during his final season in Los Angeles, it’s reasonable to project the Darkest Timeline Sixers finishing somewhere around .500, perhaps ahead of the seventh-seeded Boston Celtics (41-40).
Even with Bynum, the Sixers weren’t toppling the defending-champion Heat in the playoffs, but a back-to-back appearance in the Eastern Conference Semifinals may have further emboldened team ownership and management. Instead of hiring Hinkie to detonate the roster and rebuild it from the ground up, Philadelphia likely would have stood pat with its Holiday-Young-Turner-Bynum core and looked to flesh out the edges in free agency, the draft and via the trade market.
With its young talent pipeline depleted, however, the franchise would have run into major problems down the line with that plan.
Prior to acquiring Bynum, the Sixers had already shipped a lottery-protected first-round pick to the Miami Heat for the No. 27 selection, which they used to draft Arnett Moultrie. (He played a total of 729 minutes across two seasons in Philly before busting out of the league.) Their lottery-protected 2015 first-rounder went to Orlando in the Bynum deal. With a healthy Bynum fueling them to repeated playoff berths, they likely would have been without two of their next three first-rounders.
It’s not as though the Sixers were operating with significant financial flexibility, either. In Bynum’s lone year with the team, they had nearly $64.4 million of salary on the books, well over the NBA’s salary cap of $58 million. With Holiday’s extension set to kick in prior to the 2013-14 season and Bynum due for a new deal as well, Philly would have been limited to cap exceptions in its quest to fill out its roster in free agency, as the cap jumped by less than $700,000 that summer.
Would Bynum have been enough to single-handedly get the Darkest Timeline Sixers over the hump? Therein lies the roughly $20 million question.
The cynical theory
Prior to Bynum’s arrival, the Sixers were the textbook definition of the “treadmill of mediocrity.”
Following their surprise 2001 NBA Finals appearance, the scrappy Allen Iverson guided them to two more above-.500 seasons immediately thereafter. Over the ensuing nine years, however, they cycled through seven head coaches while going 333-389 with four first-round playoff knockouts and the aforementioned Eastern Conference semifinals berth made possible only by Derrick Rose’s torn ACL.
Given their capped-out state at the time of the Bynum trade, Philadelphia’s ownership had to know trading for the oft-injured big man was an all-or-nothing gamble. If he developed into a perennial All-Star and guided them on multiple deep playoff runs, perhaps Holiday, Young and Turner would have slid into complementary roles and forged the Sixers into a legitimate title contender. Rounding out the supporting cast would have been difficult if not impossible, but with Boston’s Big Three era winding down, there was a power vacuum atop the Atlantic Division.
If Bynum’s knees imploded, conversely, no one could blame ownership from pulling a complete 180 and embarking upon a rebuild.
That begs the cynical question: Did the Sixers want to escape from the treadmill of mediocrity at all costs, regardless of which route they took? Were they okay with resetting the direction of the franchise if Bynum went bust, so long as they could eventually sell fans on the illusion of hope?
The real Sixers went the latter path, but the Darkest Timeline Sixers with a healthy Bynum would have rambled down the former. In turn, they would have developed into a poor man’s version of the early-2010s Atlanta Hawks—a repeated playoff entrant with no real path toward championship contention. Unless Bynum developed a reliable three-point stroke overnight and preemptively ushered in the stretch 5 revolution, Philadelphia would have been stuck miring between not bad enough to rebuild and not good enough to put a scare into whatever team LeBron is on.
The Bynum trade was a mammoth bust for the Sixers, but it wound up being a blessing in disguise. Rather than trudge along on the treadmill of mediocrity, it forced the franchise to finally commit to a path, with Hinkie as its steward. (At first, anyway.)
Hinkie immediately set out to replenish the Sixers’ pipeline of young prospects and draft picks, undoing the damage of his predecessors, even if it meant three straight sub-20-win seasons. Though that lack of immediate progress ultimately cost Hinkie his job, it set Philadelphia down the path it’s on today: one with perhaps the league’s brightest assortment of budding talent.
With apologies to the Darkest Timeline Sixers, this version is far more preferable.