For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the ultra-patriotic Philadelphia 76ers.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
You don't have to love the Philadelphia 76ers. You just have to marvel at the way they constructed a team that was an anathema to all modern pro basketball thought, committed to a franchise savior in Doug Collins in spite of years of evidence that suggested they should at least try to counter Collins' whims, dumped big for small, mindful for thoughtless … and still ended up its summer with the best center in their conference.
Sweet moves, dingleberries.
By any rational line of thinking, the Sixers turned in a miserable offseason — mostly working without a proper GM on their way to more or less handing the reins over to Doug Collins in the form of in-house GM hire Tony DiLeo. Along the way, the team managed to somehow spend more money while essentially trading Elton Brand and Lou Williams for two vastly inferior players in Kwame Brown and Nick Young. The Brand release was such a stupefying move that tends to burn even with Andrew Bynum's presence on this roster — the team took in no real cap savings for his release, the team's ownership group still has to pay his salary from here on out, and the Sixers bid against absolutely nobody on their way toward landing Brown for two years at an above-average salary for a below-everyone player.
Lou Williams goes to Atlanta, and the team pays more to pull in Nick Young. I'm not convinced Doug Collins has seen Nick Young play basketball, because Nick Young and Doug Collins will go together like Nick Young and Doug Collins. Also, Nick Young will make more money than Lou Williams this season.
(Of course, they'll have cap space next summer. Then again, Andrew Bynum's hoped-for extension will eat up just about all of that cap space, and they'll still have to replace the brilliance that Nick Young no doubt lent to Philadelphia throughout 2012-13.)
It was a shakeup that the 76ers needed, but one that was executed miserably until the team was able to upgrade from Andre Iguodala to Andrew Bynum. As a result, provided Bynum hits his stride and stays healthy sometime this winter, the 76ers will be a better team than the one we saw for most of last season, one that saw the team follow up a white-hot start with a miserable finish. The addition of a series of new faces should help the buffer between Collins and his roster as they both near the inevitable burnout, and in the meantime the group could contend for 50 wins.
Because Collins can coach. He can coach his tail off and will have his team prepared for their opponent, even if Collins' offensive schemes can be their own worst enemy. The team spent most of 2011-12 acting as a college team of sorts, moving the ball and focusing on the sort of interchangeable parts that both win NBA games and turn NBA teams into shooting, jumping question marks. Even as it challenged for the Eastern Conference finals last May, you never got a sense of who the Sixers were. Now, with Bynum anchored down low, you get it.
[Fantasy Basketball '12: Play the official game of NBA.com]
It's in, and then out. Out to Jason Richardson, the underrated Dorrell Wright, and aforementioned Young. Jrue Holliday will still be around to look people off, while Thaddeus Young and Lavoy Allen stay behind to work that weird in-between game that we loved from the pre-Bynum 76ers.
Collins will lord over everything else. Few know X's and O's better than this guy and he will be just as adept working with his new roster as he was working with his motley collection of tweeners (at every single position, somehow). It's during the summer, and trade deadline, that we worry about with this man.
The meantime, provided Bynum can play 2300 minutes in a season for the first time in his career, could be worth all the offseason missteps.
(I don't think he'll play 2,300 minutes. Hence the record listed below.)
Projected record: 44-38
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: The prospect that change is good. After their most successful season in nine years and "fielding arguably [their] strongest team in over a decade," as Bradford Doolittle writes in the highly recommended Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13, the 76ers responded by shipping out five of their top nine players from a season ago (including three of the five players who saw the most floor time for Philly in the postseason) and deciding that they were going to be a very different type of team. Peace out, Integral Parts of a Team That Came Within One Win of the Eastern Conference finals!
Though he's known as an emotional sort, Philly coach Doug Collins clearly wasn't too sentimental about the Sixers' roster following their seven-game second-round loss to the Boston Celtics, telling Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News that the front office quickly decided "that team had reached its peak [and] knew we were going to have to make changes." Here's why:
Last year's Sixers ranked 17th in the league in offensive efficiency, featured eight players who averaged at least eight points per game but nobody who averaged more than 15 points per game, produced the league's second-most midrange jumpers (only the Charlotte Bobcats took more) and second-fewest field-goal attempts taken within the restricted area (only the Dallas Mavericks managed fewer), and generated the worst free-throw rate in the league. That came on the heels of the 2010-11 Sixers, who ranked 17th in the league in offensive efficiency, featured eight players who averaged at least 7.2 points per game but nobody who averaged more than 15 points per game, produced the league's second-most midrange jumpers (only the Washington Wizards took more) and ninth-fewest field-goal attempts taken within the restricted area, and generated the third-worst free-throw rate in the league.
The spread-it-out, pull-up-rather-than-attack, everybody-take-turns approach that Collins took in his first two years in Philly limited mistakes (the Sixers have had the lowest turnover rate in the league both years) and, in tandem with excellent team defense (No. 8 in defensive efficiency two years ago, No. 3 last year) produced consecutive playoff appearances; there are, to be sure, virtues to the tactic. But it also produced two heavy first-round underdogs to established powers (the Miami Heat in '11, the Chicago Bulls in '12) who, if not for serious injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah this spring, would both have been out-in-five also-rans.
So rather than be seduced by the second-round run, Collins and company allowed sixth man Lou Williams and 3-point specialist Jodie Meeks to leave in free agency, used the collective bargaining agreement's amnesty provision to shed the remaining $18.2 million on Elton Brand's contract, and signed noted bust Kwame Brown to play center alongside the re-signed and position-shifted Spencer Hawes. Most notably, of course, they shipped out star swingman Andre Iguodala, second-year center Nikola Vucevic and rookie Moe Harkless as part of a four-team blockbuster that brought back center Andrew Bynum -- a player who has ranked in the league's top 25 (including 11th last year) in at-the-rim field-goal attempts in four of the past five seasons, and finished 27th and 14th in free-throw rate among players who've made at least 20 appearances and averaged 20 minutes per game, and who shoots just under 69 percent from the foul line for his career.
The 76ers have organized, streamlined and defined their offense -- they're going to work inside out, feeding Bynum on the block early and often, and see if they can't use Hawes to get some Pau-to-Andrew, high-low volleyball action going. They're going to take advantage of the fact that most teams will have to double Bynum, which should create openings for penetration by point guard Jrue Holiday or clean looks for shooters like Holiday (38 percent from deep last year) and fellow new imports Jason Richardson (36.8 percent), Nick Young (36.5 percent) and Dorell Wright (36 percent). They're also hoping the extra post attention will clear space for newly minted starting small forward Evan Turner to operate in the hope that, after two largely underwhelming years in the pros, he can reclaim the playmaking form that made him the National Player of the Year at Ohio State.
They'll miss Williams' Microwave act off the bench, but they should get most of his scoring production back from the combination of Wright and Young. They'll miss Iguodala's all-around game, but they should still be good defensively with Turner and Holiday manning the perimeter and Bynum -- a legitimate post defender and force on the glass (finishing fifth in defensive rebound rate last year) who changes and blocks shots (he would've tied for fifth in block percentage two years back had he played enough minutes to qualify), but whose reputation as a defender has suffered by dint of being compared to Dwight Howard -- gumming up the paint. And the offensive gains they're likely to make thanks to having a low-post threat for the first time in more than two decades ought to more than make up for any defensive drop-off. The redefinition should be enough to give Collins not only his third straight playoff appearance, but also a legitimate shot at taking out a higher seed with or without injuries.
What Should Make You Scared: The prospect that change is bad. The thing is, it's really easy to see this thing blowing up in Philly's faces.
For one, the idea of Bynum as double-team-commanding low-post linchpin could be shaken pretty damn quick by the reality that, as TrueHoop's Beckley Mason noted, he doesn't handle doubles well; as Zach Harper wrote at Bleacher Report, 56 percent of Bynum's turnovers last year came in the post, most as a result of a double team. It stands to reason that Bynum had outgrown the third-wheel role in which he found himself in L.A., but if all the low-post attention that comes with being Philly's lead "dog," especially late in games, amplifies his ball-security issues and he turns out to be a less efficient scorer, the Sixers will need a Plan B in the worst way. Sure, Turner could figure it out and Holiday could start looking for his shot more, but would you bet your life on either of those things?
Plus, if he's turning the ball over, he's going to drive Collins crazy, which could make Collins something of an unpleasant guy to deal with for Philly players. Oh, that reminds us: This is Year 3 of the Doug Collins Era, which has throughout Collins' coaching career been the upper limit of how long a group of young charges can stand to deal with his exacting nature. The combination of that track record, this past spring's ominous rumblings about unrest in Philly and the addition of the very smart and occasionally petulant Bynum -- who, lest we forget, is in a contract year, knows he will absolutely receive a max offer this summer, and is seeing how he likes Philly even more than Philly is seeing how it likes him -- to the mix could produce some unwanted fireworks in the Sixers' locker room. (Also, watching Collins coach Nick Young could be very, very funny.)
In the best-case scenario, Bynum rises to the challenge, the team falls into place with a logical pecking order at long last established, and all the offseason change produces a team that competes for a top-four seed in the East. But within that order, there sure seems to be a lot of opportunities for chaos.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
The Sixers have done many a middle-tier team's dream, parlaying several valuable pieces (including their best player) into a legitimate All-Star. While Andrew Bynum's credentials as a superstar are still in question, his talent is not, and he figures to be the East's starting center in the All-Star game for quite some time. However, he's still a risk, and the Sixers can't act as if their offseason coup means the difficult work is done.
Bynum is clearly the new face of the franchise, but he also hasn't proven himself either as being capable of carrying the offensive load or the sort of player with the maturity to transition to a leadership role. That's not to say that Bynum is incapable of taking on those responsibilities, and it'd be unfair to assume he can't just because he played with Kobe Bryant for every season of his career up until this one.
There is nevertheless danger in committing to Bynum fully, and not just because of his perceived maturity issues. For one thing, Doug Collins has perhaps invested in an inside-out style of play too much, basing the offense around Bynum but also planning to pay another true big man (seemingly either Spencer Hawes or Kwame Brown, though most likely the former). What that does, effectively, is to put pressure on Bynum by giving him the ball while simultaneously giving him less room to work, partially recreating his situation with the Lakers without giving Bynum the cover of playing as a third option. Bynum is good enough to transcend any spatial issues in the paint, but if he doesn't then he'll surely be blamed for failing to produce in line with the expectations of an All-Star center. He would deserve much of that criticism, but he would also have been put in a less than ideal situation by a coach with an increasingly outdated sense of NBA positions.
The low-post offensive threat is as established a basketball archetype as any, which provides hope that Bynum can be inserted into the lineup without issue. But this is far from a surefire issue, both because of the Sixers' past as a wing-oriented team and the basic difficulty of integrating any new player into a system. This problem only gets bigger the more time Bynum misses with his knee injury.
The bright side for the Sixers is that they have Andrew Bynum, a player all but a few teams in the league would go out of their way to obtain. But team identities can't change over just a summer. If this relationship is going to work, everyone must be aware of that difficult process.