Last season, the 76ers squeezed all they could out of an athletic lineup and decided to make big changes by shipping their lone All-Star, Andre Iguodala in exchange for Andrew Bynum. They switched gears and created a new offensive framework, one that will be designed to win in the playoffs.
Most of the 2011's early season success came from hustle, good defense and smart play. The 76ers took very good care of the ball. They ranked first in turnovers/game, over a full 2 turnovers less than the second place Clippers (11.2 to 13.3). They played fantastic defense. They ranked 3rd in the NBA in scoring defense and FG% against.
Their play was clearly a by-product of Doug Collins' defense-first mentality and it allowed them to jump out to a lead in the Atlantic. They played tons of home games and by mid February they were an impressive 20-9. Then they came back to earth. By mid-April they were 30-31 and in danger of blowing an opportunity at the playoffs.
So what went wrong? Primarily, the Sixers were a mediocre-to-bad offensive team. They ranked 23rd in the NBA in scoring and often looked confused when they had to settle into a half-court offensive set. As the shot clock would run down, players were often unsure of who would shoot. Sure, with Thad Young, Iguodala and Evan Turner, they could run the break with anyone, but this kind of offense all but disappears come Spring.
Game by game, Jrue Holiday started turning the ball over constantly and lost a lot of the confidence he built early on in the campaign. In his last 25 games, his assist-to-turnover ratio was 2.25 to 1. He simply wasn't able to run an offense consistently, a trait that only worsened as the lockout shortened season rolled along.
More than the statistics show, the Sixers just looked confused and frustrated when facing good defensive sets. During the uplifting playoff run against the Bulls and Celtics, the Sixers were only able to eclipse 100 points in 1 of 13 contests. They failed to break 90 points in 8 of those games.
While many were excited about this team, I was not. They needed to make significant changes, specifically to their offense, or they would undoubtedly take a step back in 2012.
They made these changes in the form of the mercurial yet potentially-dominant Andrew Bynum, the first formidable offensive post player they've had in 25 years. They also brought in several specialized shooters (Nick Young, Dorrell Wright, Jason Richardson) who are really there to do one job: Stretch the floor around Bynum and make open 3 point shots. The Sixers ranked 24th last season in 3 point shots made/game.
While they may not have the talent to match up with the Lakers and Heat (who really does right now?), they've made major strides to design this team to go further in the playoffs. They vehemently do not want to be the Atlanta Hawks of the last 10 seasons, who always won regular season games, yet were bounced in the first round almost every year.
Bynum is the linchpin for the future. If his knee heals properly, which has recently been a frustration, the Sixers could play in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, if he averages 42 starts like he has over his 7 professional seasons, then they may not make the playoffs at all.
Also, the big questions remains whether or not Bynum will even sign in Philadelphia after this season. This concerns me. How will Bynum react to the "biggest small town in America", after living amongst the glitz of Tinseltown since he was 18? Something about his aloof demeanor doesn't seem to fit here. After a bad night, I could see Bynum listening to a few 94 WIP callers and calling it a career in this town.
Few times have the fortunes of one team rested so heavily on the shoulders of one athlete, but Bynum's health and future are correlative to every single 76ers fans' happiness for at least the next 5 years.
Regardless of all the uncertainty, the Sixers NEEDED to make this gamble.
Had they left the team as is, they would be stuck in the vortex that's created by the NBA's complicated salary cap. They'd have been good enough to be an 7th or 8th seed every year, only to be fed to the lions on South Beach or in the Second City. Regardless of what happens to Iguodala's career or ultimately what becomes of Bynum's balky knees, the Sixers could not have lived without making this move. They needed something to blast them out of NBA mediocrity's heavy gravitational pull. Hold on to your hats, its going to be a bumpy ride.