The 76ers: What went wrong

Andrew Bynum's chronically injured knees kept him out all season.
Andrew Bynum's chronically injured knees kept him out all season. (RON CORTES / Staff)
Posted: July 01, 2013

Just a little over a year removed from an unexpectedly deep playoff run and from acquiring a center they figured to be their centerpiece for years to come, the 76ers find themselves still searching for a coach and a way forward.

The draft left some clues as to where they are headed, and free agency is just ahead. So the task of rebuilding the team has begun - minus, of course, all-star point guard Jrue Holiday, who was traded Thursday.

While no one knows what the Sixers will do next, it's becoming clear how they arrived at this point.

Interviews with sources high in the Sixers leadership and throughout the NBA revealed poor decision-making and internal strife that yielded a disastrous 34-48 record last season and left fans feeling hopeless.

Did the 76ers investigate Andrew Bynum's health as well as they could have before trading Andre Iguodala and young assets for the oft-injured center?

And was Doug Collins' last season as head coach doomed before it started because of offseason moves he advocated?

The Sixers refused comment for this story.

The Bynum mess

In Bynum's seven seasons with the Lakers, multiple teams, including Houston, New Jersey (now Brooklyn), Indiana, and Orlando, inquired about trading for him. After all, as the Miami Heat found out this year in their grueling, seven-game victory over Indiana and Roy Hibbert in the Eastern Conference finals, a dominating 7-footer is a force to be reckoned with.

So why was the talented big man even on the block last summer?

The March 2012 surgery on his knees to clean out damaged cartilage marked his fourth knee surgery as a professional since 2008. He underwent arthroscopic surgery in May 2008 on his left knee, and in the summer of 2010 he had surgery on his right knee to repair torn cartilage.

Bynum also had his knees drained countless times during his career, which is never a good sign for a man whose weight hovers near 300 pounds.

But Bynum's knee issues began long before the Lakers selected the then-17-year-old with the 10th pick in the 2005 draft. Bynum had his first knee surgery at the age of 12. After they drafted him, the Lakers discovered that Bynum's out-of-the-ordinary "Q angle" - the angle between hip and knee - could affect the way his kneecap glides along the thigh bone and could cause foot problems, which Bynum has also experienced in his career.

"We had four well-known doctors look at it and they all approved the trade," majority owner Joshua Harris said at a news conference the day after the season ended. "I don't know that there was a rubber stamp. I wouldn't characterize it that way."

One of those surgeons said to have signed off on the deal sat courtside prior to the team's home finale April 14. Asked how he could have cleared Bynum for the trade, the doctor, speaking anonymously, shook his head, saying, "Who says I cleared him?"

The Lakers viewed Dwight Howard as a better center than Bynum, but another prevailing factor in the Lakers' decision to deal away Bynum was the front office's belief his degenerative knees would worsen progressively, league sources said.

A trade to Orlando was rumored last summer before the four-team deal in which the Sixers acquired Bynum. But Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, an Orlando source said, was also skeptical that Bynum would ever be healthy enough to contribute, an Orlando source said. Bynum had appeared in 55 games or more just three times in his seven seasons.

One source who has seen Bynum's MRIs within the last year said the 25-year-old might again be the player who averaged 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds just over a year ago.

But "there's a chance he will never be healthy enough to ever play at a high level again."

The Sixers became involved in the talks after asking the Magic about the possibility of trading for Howard last summer. The Magic, however, were already in deep talks that eventually resulted in the disgruntled Howard's going to Los Angeles. Orlando needed more dance partners to make the trade happen, and the Sixers saw an opportunity to get Bynum.

The four-team, 12-player deal, consummated Aug. 10, cost the Sixers Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, and a lottery-protected first-round draft pick. Vucevic, who averaged 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds for Orlando this past season, finished fourth in voting for the league's most improved player.

"They gave up too much based on who they gave up and the expectations they had for a player that they thought could be a franchise player for them," said one director of player personnel for a perennial Western Conference contender. "I'm surprised, with his history, that they suspected his knee issues were that far behind him."

The Sixers always described Bynum in risk-reward terms. They say his knees worsened after the trade.

"There was a bunch of work done around the Bynum trade," Harris told reporters April 18. "At a later time his knees definitely deteriorated. You can look at those MRIs during the season, get them all up, get a bunch of doctors, and they can show you kind of what happened. No one knows why."

Bynum will become an unrestricted free agent Monday.

His agent, David Lee, has been shopping him to teams that appear interested. If he signs elsewhere, the Sixers will have given away a potential all-star center (Vucevic), all-star (Iguodala), and a first-round pick - for nothing.

Collins' rise and fall

After the Sixers posted a 27-55 record under Eddie Jordan in 2009-10 - their worst season since going 22-66 in 1996-97 - Doug Collins turned them around in 2010-11 (41-41) and led them back to the playoffs.

Although Miami eliminated the Sixers, four games to one, the team played hard and appeared to be on the upswing. The fans were happy and Collins, the overall No. 1 pick by the Sixers in 1973, became the face of the franchise. Harris, admittedly not basketball savvy, seized on Collins' popularity and had no problem with the hometown hero in the starring role.

Collins, who declined comment for this article, made a push for more power, for control of all player personnel decisions - which at the time was then team president Rod Thorn's responsibility. According to sources with intimate knowledge of the situation, Collins wanted to sign center Kwame Brown to a guaranteed five-year, $30 million deal before the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

Harris, on Thorn's advice, vetoed the signing. Unfortunately for the Sixers, it was revisited.

Following a surprising playoff run in 2012 that featured a first-round victory over the shorthanded Chicago Bulls (MVP Derrick Rose appeared in one game; 2013 all-star Joakim Noah in three), the Sixers fell just short of the Eastern Conference finals, losing Game 7 at Boston.

Last summer, Harris said, he considered replacing Thorn, now a consultant, with someone steeped in advanced statistics. However, at Collins' urging, Harris promoted Tony DiLeo to GM.

But after a disastrous season, Harris fired DiLeo last month.

"We achieved more than people expected in a strike-shortened season," Harris explained after hiring Sam Hinkie as team president. "So we took a pause. That's why we didn't do anything at the end of the [2011-12] season."

Collins, sources say, pushed for the Sixers to amnesty aging power forward Elton Brand to clear the cap of most of his $18 million salary.

The Sixers used that space to sign Nick Young and Dorell Wright - both likely to walk in free agency - and extend Spencer Hawes' deal for another year at $6.5 million.

Collins was still pushing to pick up Brown, who had played just nine games for Golden State before suffering a season-ending injury. Harris this time agreed with the coach and inked him to a one-year, $3 million contract with a $3 million player option, which he exercised on Saturday.

But Brown flopped. Identified by Collins as the team's starting center before Bynum's arrival, Brown had feuded with Collins when they were first paired in Washington early in Brown's career. Despite being initially high on Brown, Collins virtually ignored him once the season heated up. He played in only 22 games, and because of the player optioned that he exercised last week, he will be back.

None of the new players who sources said were brought here under Collins' direction produced in 2012-13. All the Sixers have to show for last year's offseason moves is the $12 million still owed to aging and injured (knee surgery) Jason Richardson over two years.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation corroborated an April 12 Inquirer story that reported that management wanted Collins, who had one year left on his contract at $4.5 million, gone.

"His three-year expiration date was up," a super agent said of Collins, fired after three seasons in previous stops in Chicago, Detroit, and Washington. "I think he is a big, noisy presence who ran the team off the rails."

After being routed at home by shorthanded New Orleans on Jan. 15, Collins vehemently denied the Sixers were "tuning him out." But it turns out Collins was trying to figure a way out of the last year of his contract and had informed Thorn and DiLeo during the Christmas holiday of his plans to step down.

When a tearful Collins and Harris appeared at a news conference the day after the forgettable season, both said that Harris tried to persuade Collins to return.

But behind the scenes, according to sources, the final days were all about economics and image. For Collins, quitting would have meant forfeiting $4.5 million. And Harris was leery of bad public relations.


Contact John N. Mitchell at  jmitchell@philly.com. Follow on Twitter @JmitchInquirer

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