Because teams never like to publicly admit that a season is over before it really is, the 76ers shortly will suit up Andrew Bynum and send the 25-year-old center into battle.
Fans have been breathlessly awaiting this moment since the Sixers acquired Bynum in August, and members of the media have been waiting for the first appearance of the player general manager Tony DiLeo last week referred to – still – as “Plan A.”
But if Bynum is indeed still Plan A – and I have no doubt that he is – then, for the benefit of the team, no one needs to see him play this season.
The Sixers should shut down Bynum.
Riding a five-game losing streak, which ties the season high, the 22-32 Sixers host the Orlando Magic on Tuesday night. They are the furthest they have been from a .500 record since they started the 2010-11 season 3-13.
The five-game skid no longer has them keeping an eye on the Milwaukee Bucks and the possibility of overtaking them for the final berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Now they are neck-and-neck in the hunt with lowly Toronto, one of the NBA dregs synonymous with lottery appearances.
The Sixers don’t need to see Bynum against other NBA teams, although it may help them win games. They know what he is capable of when he’s healthy, which is exactly why they shipped promising players Nic Vucevic and Maurice Harkless and a protected draft pick out of here to add Bynum.
As Sixers coach Doug Collins said after his practice on Friday, Bynum looked rusty. When he does play again, he will look rusty. He assuredly will not look like the second-team all-league center he was.
And he won’t make the impact in the 28 games and 51 days remaining in the season he would have made had he been healthy all season.
Like it or not, this Sixers season is a few more losses away from officially becoming that cliché about taking a step backward to move forward.
DiLeo has described Bynum as one of the few players in the NBA who move the needle, and he’s right. He also has the highest risk-reward quotient in the league, bar none.
Bynum has been itching to play for quite some time. When he entered that scrimmage on Friday, he asked in because he is dying to get back on the floor and play.
I have seen enough of the list of top-25 free agents for the summer of 2013 that has Bynum, achy knees and all, right below Dwight Howard and Chris Paul as the most desirable in the class. But I wanted to find out how the guys who make these decisions see the class.
“That’s about right where he will be,” said an Eastern Conference general manager who did not want to be named.
Bynum might not be worth the maximum contract that seemed an automatic when the Sixers made the deal. But DiLeo is not the only executive who sees Bynum as a needle mover, questionable knees and all.
The one advantage the Sixers have over any of his would-be suitors: the final 51 days of the season to determine definitively what he has left in his knees.
And to do that, they don’t need to see him play in meaningless games.