PHILADELPHIA—Andrew Bynum was supposed to be their Moses, the one who would help bring the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA’s Promised Land.
That was General Manager Pat Williams’ mindset when he pulled the trigger on the 1982 off-season deal that made Moses Malone a Sixer. That set in motion a chain of events that would bring Philadelphia its first—and as it’s turned out over the next three decades, LAST—championship since Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and Chet Walker led them to the crown in 1967.
They celebrated that team here yesterday at halftime of the current Sixers 91-77 wire-to-wire rout of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the home finale of a season that will go down among the most disappointing of the franchise’s 50. Celebrated the past, because there’s certainly nothing to like about the present for a team of which so much was expected but so little delivered.
Hours later the carnage expected to begin this summer reportedly had already gotten underway. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that embattled Sixers coach Doug Collins has told management he won’t return next year. Though no one in the organization will confirm that report, it doesn’t come as a surprise, following a week in which Collins status was hotly debated both in print and on the airwaves.
If he leaves he undoubtedly won’t go alone, part of the price for the Andrew Bynum debacle. Just as Williams had traded for Malone to be the missing piece for a team that had been to three NBA Finals in six years, yet always came up empty, that the was current regime’s thinking when it mortgaged much of its present and future on Bynum.
You all know how it’s turned out, which is not to say the Sixers were wrong making the move. Simply that they didn’t have the same kind of luck as their predecessors “I think Philly realized they had to have a dominant big man,’’ said Williams, a man noted for luck, having won the NBA Lottery three times in Orlando, netting Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway (through a trade for Chris Webber) and Dwight Howard—yet never a title. “They gambled on a guy who had a history of injuries and immaturity.
“But when he’s right and playing healthy he can be a dominant force. With us Moses was the key. We’d been to the Finals three times in six years, but never could get over the top.
“As soon as we got him we sensed something special was going to happen.’’
Absolutely nothing special has happened for this franchise in the 30 years since, Philly only once making it to the Finals (2001) when Shaq was still in his prime, and a young and healthy Kobe Bryant and the Lakers squashed them in five games. The Bynum trade was supposed to change that, giving the Sixers an imposing big man to go with mercurial guards Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner and a stable full of shooters who’d make teams pay for doubling up on the big man inside.
Instead, a season filled with such promise when they packed the Constitution Center last August to trumpet Bynum’s arrival has unraveled from the start. At least by winning yesterday, the 33-47 Sixers were spared the indignity of losing 50 games in their 50th season, but it’s anyone’s guess where they go from here.
And who’ll be the ones making those decisions, starting foremost with whether to consider bringing back Bynum—assuming he even wants to come back after thoroughly distancing himself from those same fans who chanted his name way back then.
The prospect of Collins’ not being part of the equation was raised earlier this week when longtime Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford reported he had it on good authority the Sixers would like nothing better than for the popular coach to forego the final year on his contract, enabling them to start fresh.
Collins, who’s always worn his emotions on his sleeve, wouldn’t address it and typically began yesterday’s pre-game media session by asking “What do you want to know about Cleveland?’’ knowing full well no one really cared.
In fact, you can argue—and many fans will—by coaching his team to the wire and insisting they be accountable the Sixers won a bunch of “meaningless’’ games that will likely cost them draft position. Of course Collins will never apologize for having such temerity, only secretly wishing he had the players who could’ve given the Sixers a fair shot. Instead, assuming he departs, he’ll leave unfulfilled.
“I give Josh (majority owner Josh Harris) a lot of credit,’’ said Collins, who’ll still want his players to play out the string before revealing his own intentions, which also leaves the futures of general manager Tony DiLeo and President of Basketball Operations Rod Thorn up in the air. “They swung for the fences.’’
And struck out during a season which should go down in the record books just like Bynum’s— DNP.
“Coming here over the course of the year multiple times, but not really being in the room, I don’t know what the total conversation was,’’ said Julius Erving, the cornerstone of that title team now serving as the Sixers’ Strategic Advisor, whatever that means. “I know what the net result is: Robert Parish old number– 00.
“So we have not benefited one degree. I guess he has. I think if he’s not here it will free up a lot of money, and money talks in the NBA. Bynum’s a total uncertainty for another year. I don’t think the organization should stand for that and I don’t think the fans will,’’ Dr. J said.
The debate will rage on over the next few months while the playoffs proceed without the Sixers. If somebody besides the Heat wins it, they’ll likely become remarkably only the 9th franchise since those Sixers to wear the crown—all but Dallas multiple champions.
“It just cites how difficult it is to win an NBA title,’’ said the Doctor. “Philly’s been there. It’s knocked on the door.
“So it’s never to be taken for granted, and that run we had getting to the finals four times in seven even though we only won once, I think the ONLY should be taken out of it.’’
“We did win once and the other three times we had our chances.’’
Royal Ivey’s Oklahoma City Thunder had its chances to win it all last year, until LeBron James and Dwyane Wade killed that dream. This year he’s been a role player here, watching those early season Sixers’ high hopes fade into oblivion by the end.
“On paper we looked good but it didn’t work out that way,’’ said Ivey, who’ll likely be somewhere else next season. “Losing Bynum was a big setback.
“We’d have loved to have had him, but it wasn’t the case.’’
When the buzzer went off yesterday streams of red, white and blue confetti filled the air and then covered the floor. A likeness of The Liberty Bell appeared on the video board, followed by the sound of the franchise’s old theme song. “Clap your hands, everybody for Philadelphia 76ers.’’
You’d have thought they’d actually won something other than game No. 80 in a lost season that mercifully comes to an end Wednesday in Indiana. Then again when you’ve gone 30 years since being on the mountaintop maybe you take what you can get, never knowing when you’ll have something to really celebrate.
Let the playoffs begin, then, throughout the rest of the league. Here in Philadelphia it’s been a brutal winter sports-wise, with the Flyers all but officially done, too.
Six months from now they’ll try it again, with presumably a new coach and almost certainly a bunch of new players. But as this season proved that unlike death and taxes, there are no sure things in the NBA.
That leaves distraught Sixers fans with only one hope to carry them through the summer. That the next “Moses’’ doesn’t turn out to be another false prophet.
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writer’s Association and North Jersey Press Club. His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.