Julius Erving has served as a strategic adviser to the Philadelphia 76ers since last May, and if the organization's decision-makers — whoever they wind up being — listen to the Sixers legend and Hall of Famer's counsel this summer, they'll likely let long-injured and disappointing center Andrew Bynum leave in unrestricted free agency this offseason.
As you surely know, knee injuries have prevented the former All-Star center from suiting up for the 76ers during a difficult season that will end not with a third straight postseason berth, but rather with a meaningless Wednesday night visit to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to take on the Indiana Pacers. Erving spoke to reporters about the Bynum situation before the 76ers' Sunday home-finale win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, and while "Dr. J" acknowledged that he doesn't "know what the total conversation was" among Sixers brass regarding Bynum, he does know what's come of trading for him, according to Tom Moore of phillyBurbs.com:
“I know what the net result is,” said Erving, smiling. “The net result is Robert Parish’s old number — 00. We have not benefited one degree. I guess he has.
“If the Bynum situation is one of total uncertainty for another year, I don’t think the organization should stand for that or the fans should stand for that.”
It's a sentiment that likely mirrors the feelings of plenty of Philly fans frustrated by a lost season that seemed full of promise back in August, when the 76ers took part in a blockbuster four-team trade that imported Bynum and sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers.
High hopes for Philly's chances of challenging the East's top teams began to wane in October, when Bynum suffered a preseason bone bruise in his right knee, an injury that would take him out of the lineup to start the season. The right knee ailment persisted and was compounded by a left-knee "setback" that led his expected return to be pushed back into 2013.
The timetable was eventually extended even further, delayed until after the All-Star break, at which time Bynum promised he'd play this year ... which he retracted less than two weeks later. A couple of weeks later, he had arthroscopic surgery on both knees, eliminating any hope he'd actually join to a Sixers team that has posted the fifth-worst offense in the NBA in terms of points scored per possession without its anticipated focal point.
All of this — the false starts, the dashed hopes, the season-long struggle to a 33-47 record that will send them back to the NBA draft lottery for the first time in three seasons, the outlay of $16.9 million (a tab that'll be picked up by insurance, but still) for what the good Doctor calls Parish production — would be frustrating enough. Add in the fact that the three players the Sixers gave up to bring in Bynum — All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala, now a key member of George Karl's go-go 55-25 Denver Nuggets, and young frontcourt players Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless, who've been bright young things for the rebuilding Orlando Magic — are thriving in their new homes (and, more than that, actually playing) and the situation becomes borderline unbearable.
You can certainly understand why 76ers fans who tie the team's trip into the tank to Bynum's injury woes would prefer to just separate from him entirely when his contract comes up this summer. Erving sees things similarly, preferring that the Sixers take the money they'd pay to re-up Bynum, however much that would wind up being, and redistribute it elsewhere, according to Moore:
“I think if he’s not here, you’re going to free up a lot of money,” Erving said. “Washington and Lincoln can’t play the corners for you, but they can get somebody that can play the corners for you. We need somebody to play a corner for us and play the middle for us. It’s going to be costly.”
That's definitely one problem, especially considering, as CSN Philly's John Gonzalez notes, the 76ers wouldn't exactly be flush with cap space even if they let Bynum and fellow expiring-contract players like Nick Young, Dorell Wright and Damien Wilkins go. As it stands, according to ShamSports.com's salary database, the 76ers are committed to pay just under $45.5 million in salary next year; with the 2013-14 salary cap expected to settle somewhere between $58.5 million and $60 million, that would give Philly a nice chunk of change to spend, but nowhere near the amount that can be offered by the likes of clean-balance-sheet squads like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks, who would have the financial wherewithal (if they so chose) to outbid the Sixers for any top-tier free agents this summer.
That brings us to another problem: There really aren't very many top-tier free agents who figure to be available this summer. Howard, Bynum's replacement in Los Angeles, would obviously be attractive, but he'll be the top target of every team with space and will command a max contract that the 76ers can't offer him. Beyond that, the pickings are relatively slim at the center position — Al Jefferson? Tiago Splitter? J.J. Hickson? Chris Kaman? — and while there's a bit more depth at the wing spots, it will likely be difficult for the 76ers to land impact players both inside and out who would vault the Sixers up among the likes of the Pacers, Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, especially with the amount of "Washingtons and Lincolns" available to the Philly brass.
That brings us to a third problem: Who exactly will the Philly brass be come free agency?
With head coach Doug Collins reportedly set to resign following the season, team president Rod Thorn moving into a consulting role and the status of first-year general manager Tony DiLeo uncertain moving forward, it's unclear who exactly will be determining what style of play the 76ers will adopt, what type of players they feel would best fit their system and price range, and what form a post-Collins-and-Bynum rebuild will take.
Erving, for his part, said Sunday he wouldn't mind having more of a say on such questions — "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," he said, according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer — but who would actually be making those decisions remains to be seen. Still, having one of the most significant figures in the history of the 76ers organization openly speak out in favor of letting last summer's prize import hit the road can't speak well for the chances that Bynum and Philly wind up working something out this summer, can it?