Julius Erving and Andrew Bynum greet their adoring public. (Getty Images)
Julius Erving hasn't been shy in sharing his opinion on what the Philadelphia 76ers should do with disastrous acquisition/free-agent-to-be Andrew Bynum. The Hall of Famer, Philly legend and strategic adviser to the 76ers favors the team moving on from the injury-riddled big man, saying back in April that the Sixers "have not benefited one degree" from importing the former All-Star center, and that if re-upping the talented but fractured former Los Angeles Lakers center means signing up for "total uncertainty for another year, I don't think the organization should stand for that or the fans should stand for that."
Apparently, a couple of months and some subpar (but enthusiastic) flamenco dancing hasn't done much to soften Dr. J's stance. Not only that, but at a special Philadelphia premiere screening of "The Doctor" — the 90-minute documentary about his life and career set to air on NBA TV on June 10 — Erving told reporters that he believes the 76ers' new Sam Hinkie-led front office would do well to be wary of dealing with bill-of-goods-seller Mitch Kupchak ... and Danny Ainge, too, while we're at it. From Jason Wolf of USA TODAY Sports:
[Erving] said he believes the owners will turn the 76ers into a championship contender, but cautioned that it will require a degree of shrewdness and common sense to make it happen, alluding to the team's ill-fated acquisition of Bynum, whose knee injuries prevented the center from playing last season, as a major misstep.
"When you talk to the Lakers, when you talk to the Celtics, when you talk to — well, those two in particular — the guy on the other end of the phone has his fingers crossed," Erving said. "So whatever he's telling you, he's not telling you the truth. He's working a deal for him. And what happened to us last year with getting damaged goods hopefully will only happen once. And that's the extent of that learning curve."
There are several obvious and immediate responses to this:
• To a certain extent, every general manager/president of basketball operations/deal-making executive in the NBA is probably holding back at least a little bit of information every time a deal's being struck, because that GM/president/exec is trying to get more of what he/she wants while giving up less of what he/she doesn't. That's the way the game is played, and a big part of negotiating at that level is knowing what you're not being told.
• Erving probably has at least a little bit of residual hatred toward the Lakers and Boston Celtics based on the fact that he saw an awful lot of them in high-leverage situations during his playing career. The Sixers played the Celtics 88 times (46 wins, 42 losses) during Doc's 11-year NBA career, including five knockdown, drag-out playoff series (of which Philly won three) that included, among other things, Doc and Larry Bird choking each other. The 76ers also met up with the Lakers in the NBA Finals three times in four years, losing in 1980 and 1982 before sweeping L.A. in 1983, and went 22-21 against the Lakers in 43 total meetings over the space of 11 years. Old rivalries die hard, you know?
• Saying that the Lakers tricked the 76ers into trading for damaged goods suggests that anybody with access to popular Internet search engine www.yahoo.com wouldn't already know that before the age of 25, Bynum had already undergone multiple surgeries on both knees — arthroscopic surgery after dislocating his left kneecap in January 2008, a procedure to repair a torn right medial collateral ligament in February 2009 and another to repair a torn right meniscus in July 2010 — and that he was about to seek Orthokine treatment to alleviate arthritis in his knees during the summer of 2012.
• Even if there was some cloak-and-dagger stuff involving Bynum's full medical history being hidden from the Sixers' medical team, it's not like it should come as a shock that a 7-foot, 280-plus-pound man with a history of knee problems would be more likely than others to develop further knee problems. It's hard to blame someone for selling you a lemon when you didn't really check under the hood, right?
Still, while blaming the Lakers (and, apropos of nothing, the Celtics) for being dirty tricksters is unnecessary and at least a little silly, it's easy to understand Erving's distemper toward the Bynum situation as the completely natural outgrowth of frustrations felt by many Sixers fans after a miserable season that seemed rife with possibility when Philly participated in the four-team megadeal that brought Bynum to Pennsylvania and shipped Dwight Howard to Hollywood. To review:
Things started to fall apart in October, when a preseason right knee bone bruise took Bynum out of the lineup for the season opener. The situation continued to deteriorate when, on top of that lingering right knee injury, Bynum suffered a left-knee "setback" that delayed his expected return until after New Year's Day 2013.
Early January soon became mid-February, with Bynum's slow-developing comeback tabled until after the All-Star break, which precipitated a promise by the big man that he'd play this season. That pledge was promptly rescinded when matters failed to appreciably improve; weeks later, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees, ending any shot that he'd suit up for a Sixers squad that struggled mightily to score without its expected low-post centerpiece. The absence of production and soul-crushing slow-play were bad enough; the strong play of former Sixers All-Star Andre Iguodala for the Denver Nuggets and young frontcourt players Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless for the Orlando Magic made matters even worse.
It's easy to grasp why Erving would be upset at the way that situation unfolded. And it's even easier when you consider the possibility that the attitude reflects Doc's frustration at the prior regime not soliciting his input on the trade ("With the Bynum deal not working out, there are potential deals out there that I wouldn't mind being consulted on as far as bringing in free agents and vetting them") and the prospect of the new regime acting similarly.
Asked at the documentary's premiere about Hinkie bringing an increased focus on advanced statistical analysis informed by his time as an assistant GM under Daryl Morey with the Houston Rockets, Erving shrugged and smirked, according to Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News:
When asked about the direction of the 76ers these days and the implementation of analytics, Erving could only laugh — as many old-school basketball people do — at the thought of it being the new way of the NBA.
"Analytics? You want to explain?" Erving semi-joked. "Is that like a new category or something, or stats or analysis of players, character? Thing that have always existed but now there's a title for it? It's turning basketball into rocket science, right? I think if a team does it and they win, they everybody is going to do it. If the team is a cellar dweller, you can analyze all they want, nobody is going to follow them. But if they are doing it successfully and it's publicized, people are going to follow. You're talking about 30 teams, you're not talking about 300. It's very easy to get the memo, get the word, and find somebody to do the same thing."
Rather than demonize Erving for not drinking the Sloan conference Kool-Aid, I'll just note that, at its base, a lot of the "analytics movement" is about trying to get as much information about as many things as possible to make better decisions about them. Like, for example, the real health of the knees of the franchise center on whom you're about to stake the fate of your organization.
So maybe Doc and Sam will wind up being more simpatico than we'd think. Just so long as he doesn't make too many phone calls to Southern California or Massachusetts, I guess.
Hat-tip to SB Nation's Steve von Horn.
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