Not what you were expecting huh? Certainly not on a day when over 500 people have already signed an enormous “Get
Well Out” card for Sixers center Andrew Bynum before midday. But while it has become popular to classify the Bynum debacle as the “worst Philly trade ever”, the trade doesn’t even crack the Sixers Top 5 list of horrible mistakes. Many cynics would point out that only serves as a reminder as to just how many bad front office decisions the Sixers have made throughout the years. Sadly, they would be right. More importantly, however, the Bynum trade doesn’t even earn honorable mention because IT WASN’T A MISTAKE. Even now, with the likelihood looming that Bynum will never play a game for the Sixers, this trade has turned out much, much better than another transaction that took place just over 6 years ago – a trade that, after the Bynum smoke clears, will have set back the Sixers franchise nearly a decade.
Allen Iverson was traded to the Denver Nuggets on December 19, 2006. After 11 electric and tumultuous years in Philadelphia, the Answer had finally worn out his welcome in the City of Brotherly Love. The Sixers had missed the playoffs two out of the three years following Larry Brown’s departure in 2003, and attendance numbers began to decline as fans were no longer willing to pay to see Iverson’s act on a losing team. Rock bottom arrived as both Iverson and Chris Webber showed up late to the home finale in April 2006; the Sixers benched both players and neither even made an appearance on “Fan Appreciation Night.” I remember that night vividly as it was the last time I had season tickets, and the one and only time I’ve EVER left a game early. Disgusted by the antics of Iverson, and the handling of the situation by the franchise, my brother and I walked across the street to catch the Phillies game instead. Iverson should have been dealt that offseason; it was clear the team was badly in need of a dramatic makeover and culture change, and that the team was no longer a viable Eastern Conference contender with Iverson as the centerpiece. Rumors swirled both before and after the draft that summer, including a potential deal with division rival Boston. In the end, Iverson stated that he wanted to remain a Sixer and got his wish – until the next season started just as poorly. Eventually Iverson was benched and reportedly demanded a trade. Now, instead of embracing the chance to rebuild with lottery picks and young players, Billy King was forced to make the best deal he could under terrible circumstances; by waiting until other GMs knew he had no choice but to trade Iverson, he removed all of his negotiating leverage.
In return for Iverson, Denver sent the Sixers the expiring contract of veteran Joe Smith, two first round picks and point guard Andre Miller. Instead of receiving a lottery pick in either the 2006 or 2007 draft, or young assets upon which to build or acquire another star, King settled for two draft picks destined to be in the latter part of the first round, and two veterans that were only going to keep the Sixers from being bad enough to have a chance to land a top pick in the 2007 draft. At the time, Miller was considered one of the better point guards in the league and was leading the NBA in assists. The Sixers were a putrid 5-19 when they dealt Iverson to Denver; Miller led the Sixers to a 30-28 record the rest of the way, including a 17-9 finish. At the time, I remember refusing to watch those awful Sixers, because I knew they needed to lose and it pained me to watch games and root against them. Instead I stayed up late watching Big-12 basketball, and developing a huge man crush on a skinny Texas freshman named Kevin Durant. In my mind, all the losing would be worth it as long as the Sixers had the opportunity to draft the budding superstar. Andre Miller robbed me of that opportunity and I will never forgive him for it.
Personal vendetta aside, there are obviously no guarantees that the Sixers would’ve landed Durant (or Al Horford) in that draft. In fact, the Sixers did extraordinarily well in nabbing Thaddeus Young with the 12th pick in 2007. The draft is often a crapshoot, as the Sixers later landed a top 2 pick in a draft that didn’t include the same type of franchise altering talent. More importantly however, Andre Miller turned the Sixers into the NBA’s nightmare scenario – a .500 basketball team. In the NBA, the only thing worse than being bad is being average – a team is unable to truly contend with their current roster, but also isn’t bad enough to acquire the top flight talent needed to turn around a franchise. Not only did he prevent the 2007 Sixers from finishing near the bottom of the league, but he had a tangible impact on the Sixers’ direction and approach moving forward. A 40-42 finish in 2008 landed them a matchup with the heavily favored Detroit Pistons in the first round. After stealing a game in Detroit, the Sixers also won Game 3, and blew a large lead in Game 4 at home before eventually losing the series in six games. This effort, as a huge underdog, convinced the Sixers management that they were only a few moves from being legitimate contenders. They resigned swingman Andre Iguodala to a lucrative extension and made an even bigger splash in free agency, signing Elton Brand to a monster contract. The transformation was complete – the Sixers had gone from potentially putrid with cap space and assets to a middle of the pack team with no cap room and no real title hopes.
The Sixers had remained mired in mediocrity ever since – their ultimate upside was an annual first round defeat at the hands of teams with the stars they so desperately needed. Only a Derrick Rose ACL tear prevented the Sixers from being swept out of the first round last season as well. Mercifully, unlike 2008, Sixers management was not fooled by last season’s unexpected playoff run. They recognized the ceiling of the roster and the desperate need for a star player. Unfortunately the only way to acquire those players is through the draft – or by taking an enormous gamble. So, without a lottery pick as an available option, the Sixers rolled the dice…and it came up craps. But regardless of risk (due to injury or Bynum departing in free agency), the Bynum trade was a win-win for the Sixers. In the NBA, a team must be headed in one direction or the other – to a ring or to the basement. Without a star player (2004 Pistons aside), there is ZERO chance of winning a title. Either the Sixers had finally acquired the star that every franchise needs as its foundation or they were going to bottom out. While watching the Sixers bottom out has been brutally ugly, the franchise is currently in the best position its been in since the Iverson trade. They have cap space looming, and young pieces on friendly contracts in Jrue Holiday and Thad Young. They could have a top 7 pick for only the second time since the Iverson trade. The only fear is management overreacting to fans’ vitriol by signing a mid-level player such as Josh Smith or Al Jefferson this summer. So if you’re reading this and have been bashing the Sixers – SHUT UP. And be patient.
It will take the Sixers a few years to rebuild properly at this point. If they are shrewd and lucky, 2016 may be a realistic target for a return to contention, and even that is an optimistic outlook. 2016 would make an even decade since the Allen Iverson trade – a decade lost after refusing to seize the opportunity to rebuild and embracing mediocrity in the effort to remain relevant. So curse Bynum on that card if it will make you feel better, gripe about the bag of balls received for Curt Schilling, or bemoan the Flyers trade of any young winger (JVR, Justin Williams) in the effort to acquire defensemen. But none of those other franchises have spent the following decade still looking for an Answer.