It is pretty safe to say that nothing has gone the way the 76ers organization had envisioned after it made the trade for Andrew Bynum in the summer. Back then, the bright outlook brought talk of division titles, a possible conference championship appearance and perhaps a team that would be a contender in those areas for quite some years.
The knee injuries Bynum has suffered through since before training camp have, of course, kept him from stepping on the court with his new team and has buried all those preseason hopes deep in fans' minds.
Without Bynum, the hole in the middle of the floor for the Sixers seems to be growing wider and wider, as there has been practically no inside presence for the team in the first quarter of the season. But a foundation of sorts seems to have been erected during the 7-footer's absence.
For his three seasons as the head coach of the Sixers, Doug Collins has been looking for a leader to lean on - someone who can be the voice for him so his isn't the only one voice players hear during good times and especially bad. As much as that leader is born from strong play on the floor, he also would bring an overall work ethic, which includes working in the weight room, spending extra time fixing flaws in his game and carrying out the plans set forth by Collins.
As deflating as Bynum's absence has been, the emergence of three players - Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner - has not only helped this year's team to stay above .500 but also has supplanted solid pieces with which to build, whether it be with Bynum or someone else.
The three youngsters have been the most solid players for the team in the early part of this season and, more important, they have shown the leadership qualities Collins cherishes. And as Young is the oldest at 24, they all could be here for quite some time.
"The one thing that we're trying to do here, the really, really top-flight teams in this league have a core group of like three guys who you build your team around," Collins said. "And now you take those three and you build the pieces [around them]. It's interesting, as we started the season we thought that Jrue would be one of those pieces and Andrew Bynum was going to be one piece. Who was going to emerge as that third guy? Our three guys now are Jrue, Evan and Thad. So it's a different way of trying to put the pieces together and it's not an easy switch to have to make as a coach. You just try to keep finding the right guys to be out there and hopefully find some consistency. That's the thing with us right now, the unfamiliarity with each other and that leads to inconsistency."
For much of the last decade the organization has been consistent - consistently mediocre. The NBA and its salary cap make it almost impossible to turn consistent mediocrity into a steady level of success.
But the Sixers, with their new ownership, made bold moves during the offseason, which included trading Andre Iguodala and freeing up $16 million by amnestying Elton Brand. As I've said before, they swung for the fences in acquiring Bynum, and so far it has been a whiff. But if Bynum doesn't play, the team most certainly will not sign him for any time past this season, thus freeing up his $16 million. Nick Young ($6 million), Dorell Wright ($4.1 million), Royal Ivey and Damien Wilkins ($1.2 million each) can all come off the books after this season, too, so there still is light in the tunnel for the organization.
And most of that light is coming from Holiday, Turner and Young. Last week when the Boston Celtics were in town, I asked coach Doc Rivers about Holiday and what is the key reason he has become what Rivers called "an All-Star player."
"His shot has set him free," Rivers said. "He's getting to the basket but he's making that shot, now. What I love is that he's a tough kid, he competes every night. He's stronger, a really good player, an All-Star player."
Another league official pulled me aside at a game: "Do the Sixers realize what a special player they have in Holiday?" he said. "That kid is special now and is going to be really special."
Turner's rise hasn't been as quick as fans would have liked, but he has been steady and appears ready to keep ascending. He has a confidence that rubs off on teammates and a likability that pulls a locker room together. And Young, perhaps the nicest and smartest of all the players, is that one kid whom a coach is always leaning because he does what he is asked.
Holiday and Young will be here for years to come, barring a trade, as they both signed long contracts. Holiday has 4 more years after this at about $41 million, while Young has 2 more and a player option for a third worth about $9 million a year. Turner will make $6 million next season and has a qualifying offer of $8.7 million the next.
That's your new foundation, though not the one envisioned before the season started. If you are looking for a bright spot amid the Bynum knee mystery, there it is.