Andrew Bynum is the focal point, but will he get help from guys like Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday?
Editor's note: This is the latest installment of a 12-part series this summer that will profile six Eastern Conference teams and six Western Conference teams that could knock off the Miami Heat. Today we profile the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Philadelphia 76ers were one of the biggest surprises last season. With a roster nearly untouched during the lockout, the Sixers were long on continuity and short on superstar talent. They jumped out to a sterling 16-6 record in the East while boasting the league's top defense for most of the season, thanks to Andre Iguodala's boa constrictor act on the perimeter.
But was Philly a fluke or was it for real? A post-January slide confirmed that the Sixers weren't quite ready to contend with the Bulls and Heat for the East's top record. The Sixers finished the season on a 19-25 tailspin that almost knocked them out of the playoff race. Still, they managed to hold onto the 8-seed in the East.
The Sixers played like the little brother desperate to prove that they could hang with the big boys. And for much of the season, they did. Heading into a first-round matchup against the mighty Chicago Bulls, the outlook wasn't looking so rosy. But that all changed when Derrick Rose suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 1. The Sixers went on to win the series in six games and pushed the Boston Celtics to the brink in the Eastern Conference semifinals, before falling in seven games.
Considering this was a team in disarray at the tail end of the regular season, the postseason push could be viewed as a success for the blossoming squad. But even with youngsters Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young set to return, the Sixers' front office wouldn't be satisfied with the status quo.
Welcome to the dawn of a new era in Philadelphia. The 76ers waved goodbye to Iguodala (traded to Denver), Elton Brand (cut via amnesty), Lou Williams (free agency), Jodie Meeks (free agency), Moe Harkless (traded to Orlando) and Nikola Vucevic (traded to Orlando). The newcomers? Andrew Bynum (traded from the Lakers), Nick Young (signed via free agency), Jason Richardson (traded from Orlando), Kwame Brown (signed via free agency) and Dorell Wright (traded from Golden State). Got all that?
All's well that ends well. That's what you could take away from the 76ers' offseason, one that began with a rough patch and ended with one of the most valuable commodities in the game: a young All-Star center. Acquiring Bynum seemed to wash away any lingering doubts about Philadelphia's previous moves, including effectively spending $24.1 million for one season of Nick Young's services when you include the payout of Brand's $18.1 million (remember, they still have to pay him under amnesty rules).
While Bynum's work ethic and focus might fall under scrutiny at times, he remains one of the two or three best centers on the planet. After the All-Star break, Bynum went on a tear, averaging 21.2 points and 10.9 rebounds while shooting a blistering 56.9 percent from the floor. Next season will be the first in which he's the No. 1 option on offense, so it will be interesting to see how he deals with defensive schemes and double-teams that will inevitably come in his direction.
Bynum is a game-changer, but his acquisition did come at a steep cost. The Sixers sent away arguably the best perimeter defender not named LeBron James in Iguodala -- a primary reason the Sixers were a top defense last season. They'll miss Brand as well, who, although perhaps overpaid, rated among the best defenders at his position in 2011-12.
It also can't be ignored that the Sixers let Williams -- a guy who posted a higher PER than Monta Ellis, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson last season -- walk in free agency and replaced him with Young, who never saw a shot he didn't like despite posting a true shooting percentage well below the standard rate for a shooting guard.
It'll be fascinating to see whether the Sixers can maintain their Iguodala-fueled defensive efficiency with Bynum now leading the way. Bynum had a freakishly low foul rate last season (lowest among centers), but the Los Angeles Lakers were not dominant on that end even with two 7-footers and defensive guru Mike Brown at the helm. It'll be a big test considering they'll ask him to erase Spencer Hawes' and Brown's mistakes when they play out of position at power forward.
All eyes will be on Bynum this coming season, but don't discount the variable of Holiday. The point guard hasn't taken the leap that many envisioned, but keep this in mind: Holiday is just one month older than the No. 6 pick in the 2012 draft, Damian Lillard. Holiday is still just 22 years old and has plenty of time to grow into an elite point guard.
How can he get there? Finding easy points is a start. Holiday will need to leverage his sharp shooting stroke into more attempts from downtown, rather than pulling up for long 2s like he so often does. He can also take the next step -- one similar to the one Rose took in his MVP season -- by drawing contact in the lane and netting more whistles from the refs. If Holiday does that and Bynum stays healthy, you can pencil the Sixers into the playoffs.
But in order for the Sixers to truly contend with the Heat in the East, Holiday won't be the only one needing a breakout season. Time is running out for Turner to prove he wasn't a colossal bust as the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft. Like Holiday, Turner needs to cure his apparent allergy to the free throw line. Elsewhere, Thaddeus Young has the talent to win the starting gig at power forward (he posted a solid 18.9 PER last season), but can the team trust his relative lack of size? In a shrinking league, one would think that it makes more sense these days.
Telling stat: 16.1 percent
Last season, the 76ers posted a free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt) of 16.1 percent. How low is that? We haven't seen a team that scared of the free throw line in the history of the NBA. And the 76ers let the one guy who got to the free throw line best (Williams) walk this offseason.
What needs to go right?
How about everything? The Sixers won't contend with the Heat or sniff home-court advantage if their youngsters don't finally cash in on their potential. Holiday, Turner and both Youngs must find ways to make their games more dynamic, especially with a talent like Bynum anchoring the post. The 76ers might have the highest ceiling outside of the Heat, but the continuity that they enjoyed last season is all but gone.
This is a team that could scare the Heat inside with massive size, but that will only happen if their perimeter players take a massive step forward and give Miami a reason not to triple-team Bynum in the post. Bynum gives this team a rock-solid foundation, but the question marks in the backcourt should keep the Sixers from making noise in the East.
Contenders: Philadelphia 76ers
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Posted 14 September 2012 - 05:08 AM
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