When the official book of The Process is written, its first chapter will begin on August 10, 2012.
That's the date when the Sixers unexpectedly wormed their way into the biggest trade of the '12 offseason, a four-way deal with the Lakers, Magic and Nuggets that saw Philly deal their best player (Andre Iguodala) and a handful of not-quite-blue-chip assets (Nikola Vucevic, Mo Harkless, a protected future first) for the guy who was supposed to usher in the next era of Philadelphia 76ers basketball: talented, enigmatic Lakers big Andrew Bynum.
The consequences were drastic, and in none of the ways we wanted: Bynum got injured and stayed injured, never playing a healthy game in Philadelphia, while Iguodala thrived in Denver and then Golden State, Vucevic stuffed stat sheets in Orlando, and Sixers coach Doug Collins gradually lost his mind as Bynum festered on (and/or nowhere near) the Sixers' bench. If you can remember one thing that happened on the court for those Sixers that season (with the possible exception of Nick Young's infamous falling-out-of-bounds heave), kudos -- more likely, your memory of '12-'13 is an amalgam of bizarre hairdos and even stranger press conferences.
But of course, we all remember what happened next: Collins left, and caretaker GM Tony DiLeo was replaced with our Once and Always Dark Lord, Sam Hinkie. After the Bynum trade stripped our team of rebuilding assets, Hinkie was charged with restocking the cabinet, an order he carried out with extreme prejudice: Young All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday was swapped for Nerlens Noel and another draft pick -- which Hinkie then used to get back the pick Collins dealt to Orlando -- and within a couple years, the Sixers had one of the league's best collections of rebuilding pieces, despite having gotten no tangible return from the Bynum deal but a couple sporadically healthy months of late-career Jason Richardson.
There's an argument to be made that it's still the best trade the Sixers have made this decade.
As long ago as late 2013, I wrote about how the Bynum deal was actually a good thing for the Sixers. It was the necessary boom-or-bust moment for a team whose fans had long tired of seasons hovering a couple games above or below .500, and who were ready to swing for the upper deck even if it meant possibly whiffing in cartoonish fashion. "What the Sixers basically did two summers ago was trade Andre Iguodala, Nik Vucevic, Moe Harkless and a pick for the opportunity to hit the rest button on their franchise," I theorized. "It hurts to lose future assets like Vucevic and Harkless--we could certainly use both in a year or two's time--but all in all, it seems like a small price to pay for finally getting the franchise on the right track."
Nearly four years later, that last part feels even truer. The NBA of the seasons since has proven increasingly inhospitable to its middle class: either you're legitimately competing with LeBron and the Warriors, or you may as well blow it all up. Building around Iguodala, Holiday, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young probably wasn't a viable option back then, and it definitely wouldn't have been in a couple years' time as the team took a big leap in salary but not in potential. Without the Bynum trade, The Sixers might have turned into a cautionary tale by now. Instead, they're playing in the Christmas kick-off game this year.
Though it feels like a discussion far beyond moot at this point, it's also probably worth recalling how in the summer of 2012, Andrew Bynum was a 24-year-old big man coming off a career season (19 and 12 on 56% shooting) in which he'd played 60 of 66 possible games. He was the kind of guy you bet the farm on -- especially when you don't have the crops to develop one yourself. Of course, you have to wonder why our medical staff didn't notice (care?) about the red flags that would manifest with Bynum before even his first practice and quicklky resulted in his knees turning to Laffy Taffy, but in theory, the logic was sound.
And that's what it's all about right? Though Sam Hinkie never really shared his thoughts on the Bynum trade -- he called it a "failure" shortly after his hiring, but that was more about the then-free-agent Bynum and his prospects of being re-signed by the Sixers, which, chortle -- it's hard to imagine he wouldn't have at least admired the deal's intent. Sixers fans got angry last month when an article on The Ringer mis-attributed the swap to Hinkie's regime, but the confusion is somewhat understandable: The Bynum trade was essentially proto-Process, both in its big-picutre sense of purpose, and (ultimately, sadly, frustratingly) in its borderline-catastrophic outcome.
It's actually not hard to find parallels in the Bynum deal with a non-Sixers blockbuster pulled off this summer: Paul George going from Indiana to OKC, in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Imagine Paul George, an expiring deal with no built-in loyalty to OKC, gets hurt this season. Or imagine he simply doesn't gel brilliantly with Russell Westbrook, the team underwhelms and he leaves without hesitation in the offseason, with Westbrook following shortly after. Then the trade was a tragedy, right?
Well, no. The Thunder gave up a lot in the deal, but they also come out about even money-wise, and if George bombs and leaves -- with Westbrook likely not far behind -- it puts them in a position to tear down immediately, and start their maybe-always-inevitable hard rebuild for the future. The Sixers gave up a little more than OKC did, and George is generally a lower-risk guy, but the skeletons of the deals are similar. But the Thunder won't get roasted if theirs falls apart: We're a lot smarter about them as a public now than we were five years ago -- it only took a couple hours for the NBA media to start cap-doffing to OKC GM Sam Presti for the parachute he'd packed himself while trying to pull off such a seemingly dangerous trade stunt.
As the Sixers go into the 2017-'18 season with the actual team we tried to pretend we had in '12-'13 -- a core of (seemingly) well-fitting, elite prospects, who should grow into a legitimate Eastern Conference power, possibly as soon as this year -- it's hard to feel much but gratitude towards the Bynum trade. Back then, it felt like the end of the world, and it was -- but really, we never much liked that world to begin with. The NBA world we're living in now has already been infinitely more rewarding, and we haven't even started winning yet. Trust the 'fro-cess.