For Sixers, Andrew Bynum's role continues to fade

Andrew Bynum tells the media he's staying off the court because he doesn't want to play in pain.ASSOCIATED PRESS
Andrew Bynum tells the media he's staying off the court because he doesn't want to play in pain.ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: March 06, 2013

Practice had just ended for the 76ers on Monday afternoon, the door to the gym at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine swung open almost immediately, and you'd never guess which player was the first to leave.

Well, maybe you would.

Andrew Bynum ducked his hoodied head slightly as he exited the building, as always more of an apparition in silhouette than a team member, and, also as always, a very tall one.

The image of what Bynum would have meant as the starting center of the Sixers is growing fainter. Like the Cheshire Cat that disappeared slowly from sight leaving behind only its grin, Bynum's place in the organization is fading by the day. Eventually, nothing will remain but his hair.

Whether Bynum really wants to play basketball is no longer the issue, if it ever was an issue. Coach Doug Collins insists that Bynum wants to play in the NBA. That's nice. So do the rest of us. The fact is that he can't play and there is no way to determine whether he will ever play again. Not this season, not next season, not any season.

Bynum said last week he would not play with pain. Given the chronically degenerative state of his knees, however, that appears to be his only option. There is speculation that he will have his knees cleaned out with an arthroscopic procedure sometime soon, but that amounts to putting a new coat of wax on a car that has dropped its transmission.

He won't be playing this season, that much is clear. From the inside and the outside, there are questions about his dedication to his team and to the game itself. Maybe some of that is unfair. None of us has to walk around with those knees. But the questioning is also being done by those who have watched Bynum for quite a while.

"I loved playing basketball, so I would play in pain. I did that for many years," Magic Johnson said over the weekend on an ESPN pregame show. "Andrew Bynum was here in Los Angeles with the Lakers. He wasn't a guy who could tolerate pain. When he was injured, he wasn't a guy who worked hard to get back. This doesn't surprise me."

So, maybe it isn't fair to judge anything by who walks out the door first, or by who injures himself bowling. Maybe Bynum is doing everything he can to play, but that isn't necessarily the vibe you get from being around the team these days.

The Sixers' organization, according to general mananger Tony DiLeo, officially envisions the possibility of a future with Bynum in uniform. It is different from the vision of last August, but keeping Bynum around is still "Plan A," according to DiLeo. Whether this is what DiLeo and the organization really believe, or whether it is the most convenient thing to say as the schedule plods toward the finish line, is a reasonable debate. You can't blame them for just trying to get this dreadful season over with as quietly as possible.

What the Sixers have left is daunting and the depressing silhouetted spectre of what-might-have-been doesn't make the mood any lighter. After Tuesday's home game against Boston, the Sixers finish with 15 of their last 23 games on the road, including 12 of their last 16. Of the nine home games remaining, including Boston, seven of the opponents are currently playoff teams. They also get to play Miami three more times. That should be fun.

When the season is blessedly over, with the Sixers having won 30-35 games, then it will get interesting.

As it stands now, the Sixers still can't be blamed for making the deal they made. There was risk involved (no kidding), but they were able to move Andre Iguodala to make room on the court for Evan Turner - their goal, not mine - and they had the possibility of landing a great center.

OK, that didn't work. They still have the ability to swallow what happened, dust their hands, and get salary-cap relief from the space Bynum occupied. Then it's just a matter of finding that elusive Plan B. Yes, it will have been a costly goof, exacting three first-round picks aside from Iguodala, but it doesn't have to be a fatal one.

There is, in fact, only one way in which the Andrew Bynum deal can blow up and become a franchise-crippling disaster. And that is if they sign him as an unrestricted free agent to a long-term contract and he can't play in any of those seasons, either.

Keeping Bynum beyond this season is not an acceptable risk. If the Sixers do so, this time it will be on them. It doesn't matter if Dr. Doolittle, Dr. Kildare and Dr. Oz all say the team should keep him. DiLeo said four top doctors examined Bynum last summer and indicated he'd be fine. (Team spin specialist Adam Aron recently said it was six doctors. By the end of the season, it will probably be the whole Harvard Medical School.)

It would be foolish to bet the future of the team on the proposition that the doctors who were wrong in August will be right in June. If the Sixers have a smart organization, a theory about to be tested, they should solemnly observe the end of the season and then let Bynum be the first out the door one last time.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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