Monday, August 13, 2012

Who Are You and What Have You Done With the Sixers?

Ever since the Philadelphia 76ers traded Allen Iverson to the Denver Nuggets in 2006, the team has been treading water, hovering slightly below or around .500 and squarely in the no-man's land of 6-8 seed status in the East.

Year in and year out, with bad contract after bad contract proving too much to make any significant roster moves, the Sixers were stuck in neutral. The one time they went ahead and did splurge, they landed damage goods in Elton Brand and paid their de facto best player, the other A.I., superstar money despite evidence he was and never would be a true superstar.

Mediocrity left them in basketball hell. There looked to be no imminent relief in sight, not with the Sixers year and after year failing to pull the trigger on an Andre Iguodala trade. And after last season's admittedly fun run to the Eastern Conference semifinals that was assisted in no small part by Derrick Rose's injury, I thought we were doomed to the same fate. A surprising 8 seed upsetting the 1 seed, advancing further than the year before, made me worry that the decision-makers would conclude this team, as constructed, was heading in the right direction, overlooking the fact that the Sixers were extremely lucky that a former MVP had gone down and that even with the victory, this team was no closer to a championship than any recent year prior.

So I was prepared to enjoy the ride and appreciate the Andre Iguodala era while at the same time lamenting the short-sighted view of the franchise. Only this time, the Sixers pulled the rug out from under me and every other fan who expected them to miss an opportunity to reshape the team yet again. And I mean that in the best way possible.

It all started when the Sixers wisely allowed leading scorer and sixth-man specialist Lou Williams go get his in free agency and continued when they used the amnesty clause on Elton Brand. That freed up a lot of cash and simultaneously helped give the team a minor facelift. Williams and Brand were cornerstones of the team, Lou Will the high school development project turned into lethal bench scorer, Brand the prize free agent that couldn't live up to the billing but played hard and set a good example for a young team.

The thing is, the Sixers then quickly turned that money into re-signing Spencer Hawes — a player who proved his early-season breakout was a fluke with injuries and subpar play the remainder of the year — and Nick Young, who is essentially a taller version of Lou Williams. Add to that the team drafting yet another tweener to join the log-jam of 6'6"-6'9" guys already on the roster, the addition of one of the most infamous No. 1 overall draft pick busts in Kwame Brown and a no-risk trade for Dorell Wright, another swing guy, and it was hard to get a take on the roster. The plus side was the short length of the deals, giving the team financial flexibility in the coming years, but as for the impending 2012-13 season, this team was going to look essentially like the same confusing bunch, with Andre Iguodala, Evan Turner, Nick Young, Thaddeus Young, first-round pick Maurice Harkless and Dorell Wright overlapping each other in chaotic fashion.

As a roster on paper, there may not have been a more perplexing group in the NBA, truth be told.

And then, it finally, shockingly, stunningly happened. Yes, we all knew the Sixers were aggressively shopping Andre Iguodala and for the first time seemed truly serious about it, but no deal seemed especially imminent. And certainly no deal that would net the Sixers the most talented young big man in the game and perhaps the second best center in the NBA.

Yet that's exactly what happened late last week, with word spreading that a four-team deal between the Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets was going down. The biggest news is without a doubt that the Lakers got Dwight Howard without giving up Pau Gasol, giving L.A. one of the most talented starting fives in history: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, the artist formerly known as Ron Artest, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. That's truly frightening and doesn't seem fair, yet I don't really care because it benefitted the Sixers incredibly.

As we know, the Sixers shipped off Andre Iguodala to Denver while sending Nik Vucevic and first-round pick Maurice Harkless to Orlando along with a conditional first-round pick. In return, they got Andrew Bynum, who automatically becomes the most dominant big man in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers also got veteran shooting guard Jason Richardson, who if he can rebound from a difficult 2011-12 season could provide a veteran scorer the team has lacked since the first A.I. left town.

Overnight, the entire face of the franchise has been altered. This is no longer Andre Iguodala's perennially mediocre team. It's no longer the team that gives free reign to Lou Williams or relies too heavily on Elton Brand's increasingly betraying body. It's a team that now has completely changed course, a true youth movement and a brand-new era. In truth, the team is hard to recognize.

The reason is simple. Only five players remain from last season's team that lost to the Celtics in the second round: Jrue Holiday, Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Lavoy Allen. The newcomers, meanwhile, give the Sixers an entirely new look. Andrew Bynum will most assuredly start at center, while Kwame Brown provides a veteran backup banger to join Allen and Hawes as the bigs, not to mention rookie Arnett Moultrie. Jason Richardson, Nick Young and Dorell Wright give Philadelphia three guys who can put the ball in the hoop, three true two guards with length who are all decent shooters. And veteran point guard Royal Ivey and rookie Maalik Wayns provide some depth behind Jrue, who will be running the show all season long.

Now the Sixers will be firmly in the hands of Holiday, Bynum and Evan Turner. It is their team now, not Iguodala's, Lou Williams' or Elton Brand's, and that is an exciting proposition for Sixers fans because of the unknowns. For the first time in forever, we don't know exactly what this team is capable of, whereas in season's past mediocrity was a given. Chances are, this season, the team won't be quite as good on the court. After all, the Sixers lost their best player, a gold-medal winning Olympian who also happened to be an all-star this past season and one of the league's truly elite perimeter defenders; their leading scorer; and their toughest post defender — all that plus the veteran leadership Iguodala, Williams and Brand provided. While Bynum is undoubtedly a better talent than all three of the departing big names, he alone will not make up for their absence.

When you add in Bynum's own maturity issues and the risk that he could leave as an unrestricted free agent following the season, you have yourself the chance for a mini disaster. But you also have the chance to build a truly promising foundation. If Bynum can act like an adult and have some fun, if Jrue can continue to develop and Evan can get his NBA career on track, Bynum may just enjoy playing with this young, up-and-coming team. If he does sign an extension in Philadelphia, suddenly the Sixers become an attractive option for impending free agents. Bynum and Holiday, or Bynum and Turner, or all three could help spearhead a professional basketball revival in Philadelphia.

And if none of it works, the Sixers can start over. They will have mountains of cap space in the coming years and the flexibility to make the best basketball decisions possible for the first time in forever. They can determine which guys truly are worth building around, if anyone, and then either start building that foundation with extensions or blow things up and join the ranks of the lottery. In an ideal world, Bynum will remain healthy, dominate the Eastern Conference and become the franchise player in Philadelphia, giving the Sixers an elite center they've lacked since Mose Malone left the City of Brotherly Love. And if that doesn't happen, at least the team can finally go out and have options to remake itself, something the cap-crippling deals of Billy King and Ed Stefanski never allowed.

It's been a long time since the Sixers have been truly unrecognizable, and believe me, that's an exciting prospect for a lot of 76ers fans. It's a new day, for better or worse in the short term … and definitely for better in the long run.

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