Andrew Bynum was supposed to be the Philadelphia 76ers' savior this season. Part of a four-team trade that sent Dwight Howard to Los Angeles and Andre Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets, Bynum was billed as the big man the Sixers needed to compete with the power teams of the Eastern Conference.
Instead, Bynum hasn't played a minute for Philadelphia all season, spending more time on the training room table than the team's bench during games.
Throughout this season, which has the Sixers 7.5 games out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot after a 109-101 loss to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night, the players on the court—including All-Star guard Jrue Holiday—have taken a back seat to Bynum.
The less likely it seems Bynum will play this year, the more the season has become about him.
Still, through all the missed deadlines, excuses, questions and uncertainty about the future, the Sixers are now using Bynum to sell fans on the team.
In the Philadelphia Metro this week, the Sixers took out a full-page ad to get fans to purchase single-game tickets for three upcoming games. Bynum was one of eight players used to promote the week's games, just days after another setback with his knees pushed his potential return from "maybe soon" to "maybe not this year."
Sixers CEO Adam Aron was asked this week by CSN Philly's John Gonzalez if the team was selling its fans a bill of goods with the Bynum deal, using the center to boost ticket sales when it knew he couldn't play. The embattled executive swore the franchise is not being dishonest with the fans, falling back on the notion that it has been transparent throughout the ordeal and are collectively as disappointed as the fans with Bynum's lack of progress.
Aron then went on sports talk radio in Philadelphia feeding the same lines; another hollow attempt at the "everyman" persona Aron has failingly tried to create since taking over the team.
Gonzalez pressed Aron on the digital billboard just outside the Wells Fargo Center that, this week, used Bynum's image in a Sixers jersey to sell single-game tickets. Aron threw the sign company under the bus, explaining it was their mistake for using old inventory from earlier in the season without the team's approval.
Gonzalez corroborated that claim with the billboard company, but the mere fact the reporter had to check with them illustrates precisely why fans think the court at the Wells Fargo Center is polished with snake oil. And Aron is holding the rag.
The Beginning of Overselling Bynum
Bynum's introductory press conference in Philadelphia was held at the National Constitution Center and open to the public.
When ABC's Jeff Skversky asked Bynum about his future with the team beyond this season, he gave the media and fans the impression he would like to stay for a long time.
The fans in attendance erupted. Sixers principal owner Joshua Harris quipped "where do I sign?"
It was a seminal moment for the new Sixers ownership group. Now, that press conference and this player are an albatross around the franchise's neck.
Sixers brass have remained consistent all season, holding out hope that Bynum's knee injuries will heal to the point he can actually get back on a basketball court. At least that's what they keep telling the fans.
Shortly after that introductory presser came the news that Bynum needed work on his knees, suggesting he would not be ready to start the season. Bynum's timetable continued to be pushed back, and the Sixers' spin machine kept trying to tie up an issue fans knew was about to unravel.
As the season went on, Bynum suffered setback after setback, most notably injuring his knee while bowling with friends. Still, the Sixers used Bynum's imminent return to keep fans interested in the future.
Eventually, word began leaking out about Bynum's poor work ethic, and rumors started to surface that the seven-footer was somewhat of a reluctant hero, playing the game of basketball as an occupation, not out of love.
All the while, the Sixers front office—and therefore the fans—continued to hold onto the promise that Bynum would return. Sell, sell, sell.
Through everything, Aron and the Sixers still claim to have been up front with the fans, keeping everyone as in-the-know about Bynum's condition as they have been. Still, as the player looked less and less likely to step on the court, fans keep getting fed the line that a healthy Bynum is the key to their team's success.
Without him, the Sixers are a lot like a carnival tent without a center pole: destined to collapse.
They have collapsed without Bynum. The team is a disaster. Head coach Doug Collins routinely has no answers for why his team is 23-36, recently suggesting the players on the court lack leadership and accountability needed to succeed in the NBA.
Does a healthy Bynum provide either of those things? Or does having an All-Star center make up for the need for such characteristics in a basketball team?
The Great Offseason Trade
It doesn't help that Iguodala has become an immediate leader for Denver, using his prowess as one of the game's best defenders to help turn a good Nuggets team into a potential contender in the West. It also doesn't help that seldom-used center Nikola Vucevic has become somewhat of a rebounding machine in Orlando, out-rebounding Sixers big man Spencer Hawes by 11 boards in a recent Magic victory in Philly.
The Bynum trade wasn't just bad for what the Sixers got back, it now looks worse for what they gave up, as well.
Iguodala had worn out his welcome in Philadelphia several years ago, and the owners did what the fans wanted in dealing the gold medal winner out of town. (To be fair, Iguodala was actually traded during the Olympics before Team USA won gold in 2012.) The team did what the fans wanted—dealt their underperforming superstar—and got a franchise-defining big man in return. How, then, could this be their fault?
Players get injured all the time, but to make the excuse that four doctors checked out Bynum and approved the trade doesn't work when it's six months later and he hasn't even put on the uniform. Still, that's Aron's excuse.
I'm truly not sure if he's throwing his doctors under the bus or chalking the injury up to one of those fluky things that happens to a seven-foot guy with bad knees. Either way, the flags were, are and will be bright freaking red.
The Sixers' Ownership Woes
From the day the new owners took over the team, Aron has been doggedly trying to win over fans. He has offered discounted ticket prices while simultaneously trying to create a more family-friendly environment and make the Sixers arena a more hostile building for opponents with a rabid supporters group behind the basket. Both attempts to raise interest have been failures, not from a lack of trying, but from a gross miscalculation of what real fans want.
Philadelphia fans want a good product on the court, not confetti in the air after a win and free t-shirts being fired from a cannon during breaks.
Aron doesn't seem to get it. He is extremely active on Twitter—some fans might suggest a little too active—using the social media platform to exchange thoughts with Philadelphia's hoop-starved populous.
Aron seems to take an odd sense of pride by being the public punching bag for the team, retweeting fan complaints with his own platitudes about working tirelessly to put a winner on the court, constantly talking about how the front office is listening to the fans and remarking how upset he is with every loss.
Aron tries to play the "fan" role in an effort to deflect criticism from the actual fans. He picks and chooses a few moderate tweets to share with his followers to "answer" the issues of the fans, before finding a ridiculously positive tweet—"In 2 years we win championships. Look back at this season and laugh"—to send out with a corporate reminder of how hard this season is.
In truth, Aron spends more and more time on Twitter giving away free tickets, offering fans center court, lower bowl seats for doing nothing more than tweeting a ridiculously pro-Sixers hashtag like #ImRootingForSixers or #aBrightSixersFuture before telling his followers how many entries he received to indicate jjust how dedicated the fans truly are.
Those people he's giving courtside seats to don't care about the team; they care about getting free stuff. Hell, most don't even care if Bynum is playing, so long as they can tell their friends they got to see him on the bench from the next row up.
Giving away more than 30 premium seats to followers on Twitter isn't showing anyone how much Philadelphia cares about the Sixers, it's papering the house in hopes those freeloading fans spend a little money on food. It's tricking those who actually paid for seats in to thinking there are more people who care than actually do. It's a gambit in a long line of gambits the Sixers are trying to use to win back the fans.
The Mascot Debacle
When Aron and Harris took over the Sixers before the 2011-2012 lockout-shortened season, the team set up a website for fans to complain about what was wrong with the team, both on and off the court. Many fans complained about the terrible Sixers mascot HipHop, a ridiculous rabbit that was a holdover from the 1990s regime.
Aron listened to the fans and retired HipHop, but tried to replace him with one of three safe, corporate-minded, "Philadelphia style" mascots that were such a horrible disaster the fans rejected all three.
Seriously, Aron attempted to replace a terrible mascot of a bygone era with either—and I'm not making this up:
B. Franklin Dogg, "the All-American pet, B. Franklin Dogg is a loyal Philadelphia resident who can be seen in artist drawings from the day nestled under the table beside Ben Franklin as he deliberated on the founding of the nation;"
Big Ben, a cartoon version of Ben Franklin who is "an avid basketball fan" who was "thrilled when asked to join Philadelphia sports fans in cheering the 76ers to greatness" and;
Phil E. Moose, billed as, "one of the most regal animals to roam the wild, Phil E. Moose certainly fits that bill, standing tall as he represents the Sixers (he stands over seven feet tall in fact, with the antlers). In his youth, Phil E. Moose would often be seen dunking a basketball with ease, aided by his great height. Phil E. Moose was a scoring star, and was excited to learn he had been 'traded' to the 76ers in order to entertain fans during games at the Wells Fargo Center."
Well, hell, Phil E. Moose sure sounds like Bynum to me! The Sixers finally got their mascot, and it only cost them 16 million bucks.
The Future of Bynum and the Sixers
It's unfortunate, really, that the Bynum saga continues to slog along. Just this week, Aron hedged when asked about bringing Bynum back next year. A far cry from Harris asking where he could sign, Aron said he was more focused on getting Bynum on the court this year to see what he can bring to the team before worrying about signing the center to a long-term deal in the offseason.
“That’s a decision for the offseason,” Aron told Gonzalez. “We’re still going to get more information about Andrew and his knees and his health and his interest in playing in Philadelphia. Right now, none of us really know where Andrew Bynum will be in four days or four weeks, let alone in four years.”
The Sixers owners are stuck in a box and they can't spin their way out anymore.
There has been so much ill-will created from this Bynum situation that bringing him back next year could actually do more damage to the season ticket sales than signing him ever helped. If they don't bring Bynum back and he signs elsewhere and gets healthy, that will be even worse!
In truth, it may be better for the Sixers to overpay for a guy who NEVER plays than let him become a star for another team. Then, as has been the case this season, they just have to hope his knees heal at some point.
When that point will be is anyone's guess, and trusting that decision to those in the front office has Sixers fans very worried. Keep in mind, this is an ownership group that promised to let the basketball people handle the team, while they focused on finding ways to make their investment more enjoyable for the fans and therefore, more profitable for them. Is Bynum a basketball decision at this point?
Also keep in mind this is the same team that is celebrating its 50th anniversary by giving out bobbleheads of past stars and produced an Allen Iverson statue without any tattoos.
If there's a better way to personify a franchise that doesn't understand its fanbase, I cannot think of one. Well, except for B. Franklin Dogg.
Sixers fans should have seen this coming. When Harris and Aron took over the team, the Sixers presented the new owners with No. 76 jerseys—the image is still Aron's Twitter icon—and talked on and on about how owning the Sixers was a dream come true.
That dream has already become a bit of a nightmare, and the Sixers owners better wake up and get this Bynum situation right before things get a whole lot worse.