Some of you may recall my extreme disdain for the Sixers' roster as previously constructed, and the complaints I laid out in extremely bitter fashion only recently.
Well, one inexplicably incredible trade later, the Sixers have placated me. The gift of a trade that the Sixers miraculously stumbled into, in which they essentially packaged a guy (Iguodala) who would be the third-best player on any real contender for the best true low-post offensive center and second-best center in the league overall (Bynum), and managed to pick up a real outside shooter (Richardson) to boot, has undoubtedly moved the Sixers up the ranks of Eastern Conference contenders. The question is, how far?
(Note: For those of you wondering where the "The NBA is the only league in which so incredibly lopsided a trade could occur and everyone would just nod helplessly because it's the only way things could have possibly gone down--further proof of the NBA's total dysfunction as a collective, competitive entity" article is...don't worry. We'll get there).
The two greatest weaknesses of a surprisingly competitive Sixers team last year were a lack of muscle inside and a lack of shooting on the perimeter. That led to a lot of Spencer Hawes-Lavoy Allen-Elton Brand-Nik Vucevic-Tony Batte-etc. sharing minutes in the low post, and a lot of Lou Williams isolation plays. Those are not things that very good teams often feature.
Ideally, Bynum's presence in the low post should space out the floor, creating open perimeter shots for Jason Richardson and...well, ok, that's still the only person on the Sixers who can knock down a jump shot. As maligned as Andre Iguodala was, his 45.4% FG shooting actually led all Sixers guards last season--an indicator of just how dire things were. But hey, now there's Richardson, and one is better than none! Of course, his best years by far shooting percentage-wise came in Phoenix, at Steve Nash's peak, and the Sixers don't have anyone who can collapse the defense quite that well. But I'm making myself sad again; let's just move on.
Either way, for a team that ranked just 21st in the league last season in adjusted offense, Bynum's offensive prowess should help immensely. Likewise, his height and bulk give the team an inside defensive presence they simply didn't get last season from the paper-thin Spencer Hawes and his collection of merry backups. Plus, Bynum's presence means we can all step back from the holy-crap-Kwame-Brown-might-be-our-starting-center ledge. Breathe, people.
The Sixers are still clearly leagues behind the Miami Heat. And, as the Heat showed in the Finals last year when they rendered Kendrick Perkins essentially useless, going big is not the way to beat Miami. Beyond that, though, it's not impossible to make an argument that the Sixers could compete for the East's second seed.
The Bulls, last year's regular season conference champs, will have to depend on Derrick Rose returning quickly and effectively from an ACL tear he sustained just a few months ago. Though the Bulls played well in his absence last year, losing Rose for an extended period of the season, or even a partial-strength Rose, would make it difficult for Chicago not to regress from its 50-win season.
The Celtics are another year older and lost their best perimeter shooter, an admittedly past-his-prime Ray Allen. The Pacers are a slightly better version of last year's Sixers, basically, except that Roy Hibbert is no match for Bynum. The Hawks lost Joe Johnson, the Magic lost Dwight Howard, and the Knicks are perennially in chaos (and also have no point guard again).
Meanwhile, the only team to finish below Philadelphia in the standings last year that made significant strides toward contention is the Nets, who added Joe Johnson and brought back Gerald Wallace for a full season to play alongside the re-signed Deron Williams and seven-foot rebound-less wonder Brook Lopez.
Bynum will have to stay healthy, something that's been a problem for him in the past. The Sixers will have count on continued development from Jrue Holiday, Lavoy Allen, and particularly Evan Turner. But the Sixers look to be possible favorites in the Atlantic Division, and it wouldn't be a shock to see them with the conference's second-best record.
Now, let's switch gears a bit while I explore the sad non-Sixers reality of the Dwight Howard mega-trade. First of all, didn't the owners just have a lockout to make sure that the popular big-market teams didn't steal all the good players? Isn't that why David Stern shadily nixed the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers deal a year ago?
And yet, here we are, with the world's tallest crybaby dictating to Orlando the teams to whom he would be willing to accept a trade (not officially, but no team was trading for him without the possibility of signing him long-term). When Brooklyn got tired of waiting, the Lakers happily stepped in.
The salary cap, combined with players' current teams' ability to offer more money than the competition in an extension, is supposed to keep major markets with deeper pockets from monopolizing player movement. But in reality, if a player becomes unhappy in his own city and 29 other teams are all offering the exact same max contract, a superstar will make his decision based on other factors. And that's where the Los Angeleses, New Yorks, and Miamis of the world take advantage. The only thing a Milwaukee or a Charlotte or even a Houston (which desperately wanted Howard) can offer is...money. Only they can't, because of max contracts and the relative ease with which any team can create room for one if it so chooses.
As for Orlando, could they have possibly gotten a worse return for Howard? They originally demanded both Bynum and Pau Gasol, and got neither. Instead they ended up with one starter, Arron Afflalo, a bunch of bench fodder, and three first-round picks, none of which will likely be lottery selections. They couldn't even get rid of Hedo Turkoglu's contract.
And yet, it's impossible not to get the sense that Orlando could have gotten more in the deal, and actively chose not to. Why? Because when you trade a top-10 player in the NBA for a bunch of mediocre pieces, you end up mediocre. And as we've explored before in this blog, mediocrity in the NBA might as well be a death sentence (you know, unless you're the Sixers and Andrew Bynum falls into your lap).
So instead, the Orlando front office blew things up entirely. They'll bottom out this year, with a lousy roster and a new coach. They'll probably be lousy for a while. And then, with any luck, they'll end up with a first overall pick like they did in 2004. With a little more luck, that first overall pick will turn out to be a franchise player, like Dwight Howard. They'll have a couple of years to create a window for a championship run, and then, unless the NBA's financial and competitive landscape has been drastically altered, that franchise player will move on for a more enticing locale.
Welcome to the NBA's sad reality. The Sixers can just count themselves lucky that they've been gifted a franchise center for cheap. Assuming, of course, they can re-sign him after the coming season.