LOS ANGELES - The Philadelphia 76ers opened the 2012-13 NBA season with a new franchise center and lofty goals, but they will exit with neither as their once-promising outlook has given way to an uncertain future.
Andrew Bynum, who was expected to turn Philadelphia into a contender when they acquired him from the Los Angeles Lakers last August in a 12-player, multi-team trade, was ruled out for the season this week so he could undergo arthroscopic surgery on both knees.
The 7-footer and his troublesome knees never reached the court for Philadelphia, and his absence has lingered like the losses that have the 76ers (26-41) well out of the playoff race and short of expectations.
"We hoped he could make us one of the elite teams in the East, and that just didn't happen," Philadelphia head coach Doug Collins told reporters on Wednesday prior to his team's 101-72 loss at the Los Angeles Clippers.
"It's unfortunate Andrew was never healthy enough to play. We had great expectations."
Unfortunately for the 76ers, they do not have the luxury to wonder what could have been as they must quickly figure out how to proceed.
Bynum will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end and a decision has to be made on whether to commit to the 25-year-old with the wobbly wheels.
Of course, Bynum is hardly the only roster concern. The 76ers have a revamped core that is a far cry from the group that reached the second round of last year's playoffs.
Former leading scorer Louis Williams and all-around stabilizer Andre Iguodala are gone while new experiments like Jason Richardson and Nick Young have not panned out.
"It's tough when you have so many new faces," Spencer Hawes, a familiar face in his third year with the team, told Reuters. "On any team with new parts, some teams click right away, some take longer than others and some never do."
Thus far, the 76ers have been the latter example. They have lost 14 consecutive road games and are eight games out of an improbable playoff spot in the National Basketball Association's (NBA) Eastern Conference.
The franchise torchbearer has been 22-year-old point guard Jrue Holiday, who is averaging a career-high 18.6 points and 8.6 assists, likely as much out of necessity as growth.
"It's hard when your center piece isn't there," Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said of the 76ers. "Bynum was supposed to be a huge part of what they were doing. If you put a healthy Bynum with (Holiday), (Hawes) and those guys you have a pretty good team."
Philadelphia may never know. Bynum enjoyed a breakout All-Star campaign last season with 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds and was expected to continue his leap as the focal point of an offense.
Collins said he has exchanged text messages with Bynum after his recent surgery and that the young center was positive about the procedure.
But nothing is certain for Bynum, or the team he has yet to join.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)