With the news coming out yesterday that Andrew Bynum suffered a "setback" in his recovery, many people are growing increasingly worried that the Sixers somehow got a raw deal with the Bynum trade or that the Bynum trade was a mistake that was the worst in franchise history. However, the opposite is true. Even with the news that Bynum suffered a setback*, the Andrew Bynum trade should still be viewed favorably as the best trade in franchise history and a step in the right direction.
*The Sixers have said that there is no adjustment to Bynum's timetable, although that contradicts the very idea of a setback. Whatever. That's not the point.
When doing an analysis of a trade, it is important to not let the results of hindsight dictate how we view the trade. Trades should not be evaluated on the events that transpired afterward, but rather, on what transpired before the trade when the decision was made. In other words, the focus should be on evaluating what was known at the time the trade was made, and not the events that transpired afterward. When the Sixers traded for Bynum, no one knew what was going to happen afterward. It is imperative to avoid taking circumstances that only revealed themselves afterward and applying that as a critique of the move. It is more likely than not the Sixers were unaware of the issues Bynum was going to have to start the year at the time they made the trade, so let's not wrongly fault them for that. Knowing that, let's go through what was known at the time the Sixers traded for Bynum.
You can be a lot of things in the NBA. Championship contender, on the verge of championship contention, mediocre, and draft lottery entrant, to ad lib a general hierarchy of NBA teams. The worst of these things to be in the NBA is mediocre. To be more specific, a bottom seed in the playoffs. The goal of an NBA team should be to win a championship, and thus, that is where the championship contenders fit in. Teams on the verge of a championship contender or perhaps right on the cusp and one or two pieces away from putting it all together. The draft lottery entrants may be absolutely terrible and no good at all at basketball in their season, but in a superstar league, they have a shot of landing a franchise altering superstar in the NBA Draft.
That leaves the mediocre teams. That leaves the teams not in lottery contention. That leaves the teams not in championship contention. That leaves the teams going nowhere way too fast. That leaves the Philadelphia 76ers pre-Bynum trade.
The 76ers represented the epitome of mediocrity. Outside of Eddie Jordan's debacle that netted the #2 pick in a weak draft class (go figure), the Sixers were a perennial low playoff seed. They were good enough to escape the lottery. They were bad enough to have a 0.00% chance of making any headway in the NBA Playoffs.*
*If Derrick Rose does not tear his ACL, there is almost no chance the Sixers defeat that superior Chicago Bulls team. Taking the Celtics to seven was the more impressive feat, but let's remember that the Celtics were not that good last season. The Sixers' only hope of winning an NBA championship last season included an anvil falling on the heads of LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The Sixers were mediocre. The Sixers were going nowhere. Anvils only exist in cartoons and Crash Bandicoot video games.
This toil with mediocrity continued through the off-season. They signed Kwame Brown. They re-signed Hawes. They reportedly flirted with re-signing Lou Williams, though thankfully thought better of it. They added some shooters, but with a bad front court, the Sixers were destined to reprise last season in 2012-2013.
That all changed when the 76ers traded for Andrew Bynum. Andrew Bynum is a superstar center capable of lifting a team from mediocrity to championship contender. Andrew Bynum is a player who, with Dwight Howard being traded to Los Angeles in the same deal, instantly became the best center in the Eastern Conference. The Philadelphia 76ers instantly became a match-up problem for every team in the Eastern Conference, none of whom could match-up with Bynum. Andrew Bynum instantly gave a Batman to Jrue Holiday's Robin. After a decade of failure through mediocrity, the Sixers had succeeded in turning around their franchise in one trade.
In order to acquire Bynum, the Sixers gave up the following:
His selfishness and lack of clutchness brought the team down and disrupted the chemistry by feuding with Doug Collins and taking away opportunities from team MVP Spencer Hawes. With two years left on his hefty 6-year, $80 million contract, the 76ers were never going to be able to acquire a superstar and compete for a championship with him on the team. As good a player as Iguodala is (he was arguably too good), he needed to be traded for the Sixers to move forward in a new direction as the Sixers were never going to be able to acquire a superstar, re-sign Jrue Holiday, and contend for a championship while keeping Andre Iguodala and his contract on the team.
Nikola Vucevic: A reach as the 16th overall pick in the 2011 Draft, Vuce's ceiling is limited to back-up big man. Making the decision to part with Vucevic even easier for the Sixers, the Sixers are a team loaded with back-up big men. Vuce had become so irrelevant in the mind of Doug Collins at the end of last season that he did not even see time in the Boston playoff series despite Kevin Garnett delivering a rectal fisting to Spencer Hawes for seven straight games.
Moe Harkless: The only tangible prospect with upside the Sixers gave up in the deal, Moe Harkless was always seen as a long-term project. That being said, his ceiling has frequently been described as a Trevor Ariza type, and if you can package that player in an otherwise reasonable deal for Andrew Bynum, you do it.
Conditional first round pick: If Bynum never plays a game and the Sixers do not make the playoffs this year, as is likely if the Bynum-never-playing condition is met, the Sixers do not lose their spot in the lottery.
In short, the Sixers traded a player who while good was never going to be able to help the team win a championship (through no fault of his own), a back-up big, and Trevor Ariza, Jr. for a superstar center that with Jrue Holiday and maybe the addition of one or two more pieces in the 2013 offseason becomes a championship contender.
That is what was known at the time. We can speculate that the Lakers knew Bynum was "damaged goods" and that the Sixers knew that as well, but the only person who has run with that report is Howard Eskin, a man with established questions of reliability. But let's hypothesize that the Sixers did know Andrew Bynum was "damaged goods" and the Eskin report is accurate. It is still a wise move to take a risk on Bynum in the trade even knowing that. Remember, the Sixers were a mediocre team going nowhere way too fast. A "damaged goods" Bynum still represents a chance to break the cycle of mediocrity at the cost of little in the way of assets that would ultimately interfere with championship contention in the future. Which is preferable? Taking on risk for a chance to satisfy the ultimate goal in the NBA of winning a championship? Or maintaining a status quo of mediocrity that would likely include yet another 7-8 seed in the playoffs and another mid-round draft pick where the odds of landing a superstar are slim?
You are the Sixers Front Office. You are presented with option a). trade Iguodala, Vuce, Harkless, and a lottery protected draft pick for Andrew Bynum (and an expiring contract in Jason Richardson) and option b). don't make the trade.
Which makes more sense? Make the best trade in franchise history? Or don't make the best trade in franchise history?
Obviously, the decision to make the trade that will be celebrated as the best in franchise history is the easy decision.
So why regret it now?
Every reason to want to regret the trade only manifested itself after the trade was made. And even now, why would anyone want to undo the trade and return to the status quo of the last decade? To lament the trade for Bynum is to lament a desire to win a championship. Sometimes, it is necessary to take on risks. And while Bynum was a bit of a risk, the odds of him never playing a game in a Sixers uniform were slim (those odds may be increased a bit now, but again, hindsight should not be the basis of judgment).
With Bynum, the Sixers have a direction. With Bynum, the Sixers have potential. With Bynum, the Sixers can be championship contenders.
Therefore, when push comes to shove, even if Bynum never plays a game this year, signing him to a max contract is still a smarter move than letting him walk at the end of the season. Superstars don't just grow on trees. Letting Bynum walk and saying, "oh we'll just find another superstar big man in the 2013 off-season" is easier said than done, even more so when you eliminate Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum from contention.*
*There's always Greg Oden.
Is Andrew Bynum perfect? Absolutely not, but as long as the Sixers think there is a non-zero chance that Andrew Bynum will play again in the NBA at some point in the next few years of his life, a max contract is a wiser investment than letting Bynum walk and being straddled with another re-building project. Is it the best possible move to make? Unknown, though reasonable people can disagree. But if option A is the max contract and option B is letting him walk and there is no middle ground, option A is the wiser move. It's a risk certainly, but it is a risk more worth taking than going back to square one. With Bynum, the Sixers are in an enviable position as a team on the verge of championship contention.
Andrew Bynum is worth the patience. Andrew Bynum is worth the knees. Andrew Bynum is worth it. And even though every update on Bynum's knees is more and more depressing, that cannot distract from the fact of how good Andrew Bynum is and how effective he will be on a Sixers team with Jrue Holiday and an ample amount of shooters.
It is the superstar quality of Bynum and the potential quality of the Sixers with him that makes the Andrew Bynum trade the best trade the Sixers ever made. It always has been, and it always will be. No amount of knee issues should ever make you want to regret this franchise altering leap of faith.