With the status of Bynum's knees getting more and more depressing by the week, the buzzword of "Jeff Ruland" keeps popping up more and more, even in the Liberty Ballers comments section. In fact, sitting in a coffee house Saturday morning I overheard two people talking, and lo and behold, they began discussing the Sixers, connecting Andrew Bynum with Jeff Ruland.
Everyone seems to think they are so clever and smart to know of Jeff Ruland and to remember his days (or lack thereof), and that all of a sudden makes them smart or that they know exactly what they are talking about or something. If lots of people all come up with the same idea in such an original "ah ha!" fashion, chances are it is not that original.* Or accurate. For despite what some people may try to tell you, the situations behind Andrew Bynum and Jeff Ruland are different and the two trades are not remotely equitable.
*For an alternate example, see the "Phillies always rip off Ed Wade" jokes.
The Andrew Bynum trade and the logic behind it has been discussed ad nauseum, including my own take on it, so I will try to avoid repeating myself as much as possible. That being said, let's discuss Ruland.
In the early 1980s, the Sixers were a powerhouse. After acquiring Moses Malone in 1982, the Sixers went on to dominate the NBA in the 1982-83 season, winning 65 games (79.3%!!!) culminating in an NBA Championship in 1983. In the following year, the Sixers struggled by comparison, although they were by no means poor, winning 52 games (63.4%). In the playoffs, they were eliminated in the first round by six-seeded New Jersey 3-2 in a best-of-five series, which while a slightly disappointing result, did not accurately reflect the overall quality of that team.
In 1984-85, the Sixers would rebound a bit, winning six more games in the previous season (although they still ended up with the three seed in the playoffs), with the help of a young rookie by the name of Charles Barkley in addition to multiple future Hall of Famers still on the team. In the playoffs, they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, losing handily to Larry Bird's Boston Celtics, the best team in the conference. In 1985-86, the Sixers would win 54 games, finishing in second in the division behind a dominant Boston team that won over 80% of their games. Yeah. In the 1986 Playoffs, the Sixers would take two-seeded Milwaukee to seven games before losing by 1 in Game 7.
Despite having only won one Championship in four seasons (the horror!), the Sixers were consistently competitive and consistently in championship contention in an era where the Celtics were dominant. Overall, the Sixers with Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, and Bobby Jones were a perfectly fine basketball team in no need of a nuke job.
Unfortunately, after the 1986 Playoffs, Harold Katz began believing the tank of Moses Malone was running out. Despite the fact there was little statistical evidence, both in basic stats and advanced stats to support this drastic belief, Katz acted anyway and traded Malone and the #1 pick* in the 1986 Draft for Roy Hinson, Cliff Robinson, and yep, Jeff Ruland. For the remainder of the 1980s, the Sixers would still flirt with the Playoffs (excusing the disaster that was 1987-88), but they were never as good nor as threatening as they were in the early-mid 1980s. Their most threatening run came in 1989-90, but that still did not compare to the runs mentioned above and immediately afterwards came a period of awfulness that would last until the Iverson Era. The trade for Ruland represented the end of an era.
*Yes, that's the first overall pick in the draft. The Sixers acquired this pick from the San Diego Clippers in a 1979 trade. And you thought trades today were strange.
Now to look at results is no way to properly evaluate a trade, but disregard the results and consider the 76ers traded Malone (a superstar) and the first overall pick for no superstar (though Hinson was considered by some to be a budding one), and immediately the deal becomes suspect at best. While Hinson and Robinson should not be completely ignored, for the sake of this post, I am going to focus on Ruland and his comparisons with Bynum.
Jeff Ruland came into the NBA in 1981-82 and was an immediate impact player. In his rookie year with the Washington Bullets, he burst onto the scene with an offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions) of 111 and a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 100. He would continue to play well in five seasons at Washington, however, there would be warning signs. In his last two seasons with the Bullets, Ruland would play 37 and 30 games, respectively. When he played he was productive, however, the warning signs were pronounced. In the playoffs, the Bullets had benched Ruland for the towering figure that was Manute Bol. It was immediately after this season the Sixers traded Malone for him.
Ruland would go on to play 18 games for the Sixers, five in 1986-87 and 13 more in 1991-92 after a five-year absence from the NBA because YOLO. Or something. There really is not any other explanation for it, though, especially considering how horrible he was in 91-92.
Now to contrast this with Bynum. Unlike Ruland who experienced his worst years (health-wise, at least) in the season prior to the big trade, Bynum had experienced one of his best seasons with the Lakers, both health wise and production/efficiency wise in the lockout shortened 2011-12 season. There are rumors there were warning signs and that Bynum was "damaged goods," however these reports from Howard Eskin are unsubstantiated and unconfirmed, with the facts unknown to everyone except those who negotiated the deal and Andrew Bynum himself. With Ruland, the evidence was much more concrete that he was "damaged goods" prior to the trade.
The 76ers prior to Bynum have been discussed in great detail here at Liberty Ballers over the past few years, but to recap, they were a mediocre basketball team. Outside of Eddie Jordan's debacle, the 76ers were a perennial low playoff seed and a consistent first round exit in the playoffs. They were not contending for a championship, they were not losing enough games to build through the draft, they had too many big contracts to build through free agency, and to top it all off the one year they did lose enough to get the number two pick, they had a weak draft class to choose from. In the post-Iverson era, the Sixers were nobodies with two good players (Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller) before becoming nobodies with one good player (Iguodala) and a budding young point guard (Jrue Holiday) that unfortunately, by themselves were just not good enough to compete for a championship in the NBA as the top guys on the team with no cap room to build around them. This is a far cry from the Sixers with Malone of the early to mid 1980s who not only won one championship but were consistently contending for another.
One other facet of the Ruland trade that we don't yet have with Bynum is the benefit of hindsight. Despite the warning signs that indicated trading for Ruland was a bad idea, we can rightly or wrongly look at the 29 total games Ruland played post-trade as evidence. With Bynum, we don't have that end-game knowledge yet. Perhaps Andrew Bynum returns in February, re-establishes his greatness, signs a max contract and leads the Sixers to an NBA Championship in the next few years. Perhaps Andrew Bynum sits out all year, re-signs with Philly anyway, and leads the Sixers to a future NBA Championship. Perhaps Bynum sits out, re-signs, and is never his former self again and the Sixers find themselves back to mediocrity without much cap flexibility. Perhaps Bynum sits out, and then on the first day of 2013 free agency shows up at a press conference, rips his dress shirt off revealing a Brooklyn Nets jersey, and leads the Nets to multiple NBA Championships all the while good ole' J.R. Jim Ross continuously screams "BAH GAWD KING!" for no discernible reason. What the future holds is unknown and "indefinitely" is not synonymous with "forever."
The contrast between the Sixers before Ruland and the Sixers before Bynum cannot be stated enough. The Sixers before Ruland were a consistent top playoff seed consistently contending for a championship. The Sixers before Bynum were a disgusting heap of mediocrity. The Sixers before Ruland needed to build around their core of Malone-Erving-Barkley-Toney-Jones-Cheeks. Instead, they nuked it and traded Malone despite him showing little in the way of statistical signs of significant decline. The Sixers before Bynum needed to nuke it in order to develop through the draft or trade what they had in assets to acquire a superstar that could immediately vault them out of mediocrity and several steps closer to the goal of an NBA Championship. The Sixers improbably found a way to trade assets for Andrew Bynum in the way of Andre Iguodala (a very good player on a big contract that likely was not re-signing), Nikola Vucevic (a rich man's Spencer Hawes), Moe Harkless (a decent prospect with some upside), and a lottery protected first round pick. The Ruland trade was a risk and an unnecessary step in the wrong direction, regardless of result. The Bynum trade was a risk and a step in the right direction, regardless of result.
The consistently depressing updates on Andrew Bynum are just that, depressing. I am upset. You are upset. It's natural. But do not let that cloud rational analysis. While the Ruland deal had pronounced warning signs of not working out from the very beginning, the Andrew Bynum deal offered hope that still exists, only dimmed in part because he went bowling one fateful night after the trade.
The Andrew Bynum was a trade representing the potential start of a Golden Era of Sixers basketball. Trading away a superstar in Moses Malone (and the #1 overall pick) for Jeff Ruland (and others) represented the end of the last one. These sets of circumstances are vastly different.
And in the case of Andrew Bynum, the final acts of the drama are yet to be written.