Introducing Top Of The Key, a new column about basketball by bassist Dave Hartley

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Baron Davis slams on DH-47 (Dave Hartley)

Top Of The Key is our new sports column written by Dave Hartley, bassist in The War On Drugs, and leader of his own band, Nightlands. He’s also the go-to bassist and multi-instrumentalist for many other musical projects in town. There’s probably only one thing that eclipses his love of music, and it’s basketball. To put it bluntly, Hartley is a basketball freak with a encyclopedic knowledge of the game. He writes an occasional column for Impose and his one time appearance on ESPN’s SportsNation with his War On Drugs bandmates is legendary. Nightlands releases its new album, Oak Island, on January 22nd on Secretly Canadian. Nightlands play a show at Kung Fu Necktie on January 28th and you listen to a new song here. Hartley’s first column is on a topic that’s on almost every 76ers’ fans mind: Why the Bynum injury doesn’t spell doom for the 76ers.

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On Monday, Andrew Bynum updated us on the status of his knees (and his hair). He sounded optimistic, but if you read between the lines there is some really troubling information, particularly this quote about his left knee in an interview with he did with the press. “Health is going to be an issue. There’s nothing I can really do about it. It’s arthritis in the knees. Cartilage is missing. That’s not going to regrow itself. Maybe in the future, the next three to five years, there may be something out there that really does help. For right now, it’s a waiting game.” For 76ers fans, this is dark news, but it’s not the end of the world. Here’s why.

1) Timing – As sad as it is that Bynum hasn’t even practiced with the 76ers, it’s much better for him to encounter these knee troubles now, before he becomes a free agent at the end of the season. Think of it like finding out your girlfriend is really into Insane Clown Posse and bath salts right before proposing to her–a major bummer, to be sure, but much better than finding it out on your honeymoon. If he were to give them 60 or 70 games of solid production this season and subsequently received a max deal, his knees and his contract could cripple the Sixers for years to come. The Sixers took a calculated risk–one that anyone in their position would have taken–and so far it hasn’t panned out. But after this season (and provided the Sixers have the wisdom to NOT offer him a big contract) Bynum’s substantial salary ($16.9 million) will come off the books. The front office can use that money to build around their young, promising core.

2) Jrue Holiday – Overshadowed by the messy Bynum situation has been the stellar play of Jrue Holiday. The NBA is becoming a guard’s league and the Sixers just signed one of the best young point guards in the league to a relatively reasonable extension (4 years, $41 million). He’s only 22 years old and already has three years of NBA experience, putting him on pace to become of the best points in the league in the next two or three years. Doug Collins trusts him with the ball and with good reason–he’s having by far his best season.

3) Andre Iguodala had to go – Iggy had a good run here–he’s respected around the league for his defense, passing and athleticism and was an important part of the US Olympic roster–but he never quite lived up to his “franchise” tag and the massive contract Philly gave him. He’d be a great fit as a third or forth option on a contender, but his role as point-forward was inhibiting Holiday’s development and, frankly, he’s just not good enough offensively to be the first option on a great team. Evan Turner is so far making good use of his increased playing time getting and the offense can funnel through him and Holiday (and Thad Young).

4) It’s not a center-oriented league anymore – This is a big one. Out of last year’s four conference finalists–The Spurs, The Heat, The Celtics and The Thunder–exactly zero had what you would call a “dominant center” and three had power forwards that to varying degrees masquerade as centers (Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh, Tim Duncan). Small ball is heavily en vogue: in the Finals, Oklahoma’s “traditional center” Kendrick Perkins was rendered almost completely useless when The Heat went with Bosh at Center. The demise of the five is so decisive that this year the NBA removed the position entirely from the All Star ballot and replaced it simply with “frontcourt”. The Sixers should focus on getting someone who can rotate to defend penetrating guards and throw quick outlet passes, a much cheaper proposition than “the second best center in the NBA,” as Bynum is often dubbed.

5) Culture Crisis – For the first time in a decade, the Sixers have a really positive culture. Collins has a long history of gaining the respect of young players, and Philadelphia has been no exception. They buy into his system and he trusts them. A lot of people were turned off by the 76ers during Iverson’s decline because of his ball-stopping play and their general culture of materialism. That is long gone. The team plays hard. They say the right stuff in press conferences. They play defense. They pass. I’m not sure Bynum wouldn’t upset that balance. He’s sulked quite a bit in the past. Jogged back on defense, made complaints about his playing time. Philadelphia needs to fall back in love with their basketball team. A selfish superstar is not the answer–a trip to the Eastern Conference finals is.

Despite the evidence, some analysts think the Sixers could be tempted to offer Bynum a big contract, regardless of whether he plays or not this season. Seems insane, right? The thinking is, “we have a unique opportunity to lock up a franchise center, one that may not come around again for years and years, we have to seize it.” This logic is of the “he’s really dominant but there are health concerns” mentality that lead to Gilbert Arenas’ and Amare Stoudemire’s franchise crippling contracts. Injury problems aren’t cons in the same way that “needs to work on his midrange jumper” is a con. It is a con that renders all the pros in the world completely pointless! If you aren’t on the court, no amount of upside can help you and or allow you to earn your guaranteed money. Please, Philadelphia front office, do not offer a 25 year old who has already had four knee operations 100 million dollars.