Can't knock Sixers' Nikola Vucevic trade, even now

Posted: February 06, 2013

I DON'T know how to be critical of the 76ers over this situation without being a hypocrite. I was 100 percent in favor of the trade that brought in All-Star center Andrew Bynum from the Los Angeles Lakers.

I thought Bynum was a franchise player. With the exception of Jrue Holiday, I would have included any combination of players on the Sixers' roster to acquire Bynum - even second-year center Nikola Vucevic.

I obviously would not have taken part in the four-team trade had I known Bynum and his achy knees would yet to play a game for the Sixers, but that's the only reason.

I'm not going to look at the fact that Vucevic is averaging 12.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and shooting 52.3 percent for Orlando and say I would not have given in to the Magic's requirement that he be included in the trade.

I guess I'd look as stupid as a lot of people think the Sixers look about now, but I would not have let Vucevic become a deal-breaker to acquiring Bynum.

"No," Sixers general manager Ton DiLeo said when asked if there would have been any way to make the trade without including Vucevic. "The two players Orlando wanted were [Vucevic and 2012 first-round pick Moe Harkless]. That was the key part of the trade for them."

It's easy to look at Bynum still sitting in street clothes 3 months into the season and say that the Sixers got reamed in the August trade. Of the teams involved - the Sixers, Magic, Lakers and Nuggets (who got Andre Iguodala from the Sixers) - the Sixers have gotten the least return.

The way things have played out, it's easy to say that the Sixers outsmarted themselves. That, had they just kept Vucevic, they'd have a 22-year-old center who seemingly could develop into an elite player.

For various reasons, this might go down as another of the endless blunders this franchise has made in search of a championship-caliber big man.

But the Sixers did not trade Vucevic because they didn't believe he had talent - he was their first-round draft pick in 2011, after all.

They didn't trade him because Doug Collins doesn't have patience for young players - I would note that both Michael Jordan and Grant Hill were coached by Collins as young players.

Vucevic got traded because you have to give talent to get it.

"I think it was more that Orlando really wanted me than Philly didn't want me," Vucevic said Monday, before he had nine points and 14 rebounds in the Magic's 78-61 loss to the Sixers. "Philadelphia got one of the best big men in the game. He's hurt, but when he gets back he will really help them a lot.

"It was fine with coach Collins. I had some ups and downs and then it got to a point in the season where we weren't winning games, so he went with a little more veteran guys. But it wasn't anything personal. Our relationship was fine."

Like so many times in sports, Vucevic is simply taking advantage of the opportunity that increased playing time has afforded him. He might or might not be putting up similar numbers were he still in Philadelphia, because the Sixers' situation is different from that of the Magic.

There is no question the Sixers looked at Vucevic as more of a long-term project because even before the trade they had signed Kwame Brown to be their starting center, with Spencer Hawes moving to power forward.

Considering Brown has played only slightly more than Bynum, it's a safe bet that Vucevic would have won the starting job for the Sixers, but his opportunities were greater in Orlando.

After trading center Dwight Howard to the Lakers, the Magic was committed to Vucevic as its man in the middle. To his credit, he prepared himself to capitalize.

"I knew that I could do better than I did my first year," Vucevic said. "I just needed to get the chance to prove it to people. I have a coach who believes in me and gives me a lot of minutes. I have teammates who believe in me. I've been able to get my confidence back. It's becoming a lot easier."

First-year coach Jacque Vaughn said a lot of Vucevic's improvement comes from him having a year in the league - even if it was lockout-shortened.

"It's having an understanding of the league and being in a system that fits for you," Vaughn said. "For us, Nik has been very consistent on both ends of the floor. He's playing more minutes, which gives him more opportunities to succeed or fail. He's done a good job of stepping up and challenging himself."

My old colleague at the Daily News, Phil Jasner, always told me to be leery of a guy with big numbers on a bad team. But even with Orlando at 14-34, nobody thinks that is the case with Vucevic. If anything, the thought is that he has developed faster than anticipated.

"We saw flashes last year," DiLeo said. "He wasn't consistent, but with a lot of young players, they aren't consistent. We knew he was a skilled player. We knew he could do a lot of things. We knew with growth and time and experience in the league, he would be a good player. We did see that and that's why we drafted him.

"It's always been our philosophy that if you have a chance to get an elite player, you go after him. [Bynum] has been one of the top big men in the league. It was a good opportunity, so we went for it."

Right now, it does look like a bad deal, but if Bynum gets healthy and goes on to play at an All-Star level for the Sixers the next 5 years, I think that evaluation will change.

But even if things don't work out, I can't say that the Sixers were wrong to take the chance. I was right along with them - even to the point of giving up Vucevic.


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: philly.com/Smallwood

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