Heat show 76ers what they want to be like, but can't

Posted: February 24, 2013

Things have gotten a little tense at times when Doug Collins is asked about Andrew Bynum.

This was different. This wasn't tense. This was past tense.

Collins was talking about Bynum's first actual practice with the Sixers on Friday. The injured center came out for a few minutes of 5-on-5 action.

"You get visions of what might have been," Collins said.

Not what will be or could be or should be, but what might have been. Collins made it clear that Bynum is not in great shape and not really close to appearing in a game.

The coach was talking before the Sixers hosted the Miami Heat. That was fitting, because the Heat represent a reality check for the Sixers.

The Heat are the class of the league, and will be for some time. It is a team built the new-fashioned way, by superstars choosing a desirable location to team up and chase titles. That makes the Heat a kind of basketball koan: It's the team the Sixers have to try to catch, but there is no way to follow its path to success.

Miami, Los Angeles, New York and now Brooklyn - these are the places attractive to elite players with one eye on winning and the other on lifestyle. The only way to crack that lineup - other than moving the franchise to the Virgin Islands - is to acquire the magnet superstar capable of convincing his peers to join him.

Put another way, the Heat are the reason the Sixers had to take their shot with Bynum. The NBA provides precious few opportunities to acquire a star with his gravitational pull.

And the Heat are the reason it is going to be so hard for the Sixers to let Bynum go at the end of this season, to rue "what might have been" without committing close to nine figures in the name of wishful thinking.

But the Heat are also the best argument for being realistic about Bynum now. Two years ago, the Sixers were a young team encouraged by their ability to play the Heat tough in the first round of the playoffs. Last year, with a few breaks, the Sixers came within a game of facing the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.

Now? The Sixers aren't even a playoff team. Philadelphia is just a whistle stop on the winning express for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest. The Sixers are farther behind the LeBron-era Heat than ever.

"It's tough," James said after a compelling performance in a 114-90 win. "They're in the rebuild mode, but the biggest piece hasn't played all season. Jrue Holiday is a big-time player, but he needs some help. We all thought Bynum would be a huge piece for them. It's a tough situation."

Late in the first quarter Saturday night, James got knocked on his backside after Spencer Hawes blocked his shot. The crowd loved it, even the many fans wearing Heat gear. It's always fun when Superman falls on his superbutt, especially when he's knocked upon it by an ordinary guy.

When James got up, though, he was still Superman. The Heat were still the best team in the league. The Sixers were still 31/2 games out of the last playoff spot in the East.

Catching James and the Heat isn't going to be as simple as catching James momentarily off his guard. It is going to require the kind of clear-eyed analysis and measured aggressiveness the new ownership group promised when it took over the franchise.

Those qualities allowed the Sixers to determine, correctly, that they had "maxed out" the Andre Iguodala/Elton Brand team. They broke up that team and made a play for Bynum. Now the test is whether the front office can be as clear-eyed about their own moves as they were about those of the previous regime.

Listening to Collins, it sounded like there were no illusions. He warned against "bells and whistles" signifying Bynum's imminent return to the court. He talked about the season "slipping away."

Then he went out and watched the NBA champions destroy his team, in the present tense, with no pity for what might have been.

Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter.

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