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With a bold masterstroke, the Sixers have either reaffirmed their awesomeness or made a new case for elite status. The Hook investigates.
For the first half of the 2011-12 season, the Philadelphia 76ers were the league's stunners, rating higher than the Bulls, Spurs and Heat in advanced differential metrics. Though the team fizzled toward the end of the season and ended up with just the No. 8 seed, things turned back around in the playoffs: they beat the No. 1 Bulls (without Derrick Rose) and took the Celtics to seven games.
And then they landed Andrew Bynum. Welp.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
The Sixers were built primarily on defense: Philly was No. 3 in the league last season. If engaged, Bynum, acquired in the Dwight Howard megatrade, is a good defensive improvement over Spencer Hawes (who was retained but will come off the bench). In particular, with Bynum, Philadelphia has a shot at being the best defensive rebounding club in the league. The team was No. 4 last season, and kept two of its three best rebounders by percentage (Hawes, Lavoy Allen); Bynum has been even better than those fellows over his career, especially on the defensive end. Provided that the smaller positions can continue to outrebound expectations (particularly Evan Turner), the table is set in this category. (Turner split his minutes at two-guard and small forward, but had the rebound rate of an elite small forward. That's a huge luxury.)
Defensive rebounding was a strength, but shot defense was even stronger for the Sixers: they finished No. 3 in the category, holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of .460. Unfortunately, they did that with possibly the best wing defender in basketball: Andre Iguodala. He was the major loss in the Bynum deal. Fortunately, Bynum is a strong shotblocker, which should help in the middle, and Thaddeus Young should play more minutes than ever. He becomes the Sixers' top defender; Philly certainly hopes that Evan Turner makes it happen, too. Jrue Holiday, the young point guard, is a bit of an unsung hero on this team, but his defensive prowess contributed to the Sixers' lofty standard. But losing Iguodala is a huge blow to the team's shot defense. There's a lot of pressure on everyone else to pick up the slack.
Thankfully, the team can slip a little and tread water: with Bynum, the squad's No. 20 ranking on offense should surely improve. It's hard to overstate Bynum as an offensive weapon: our offseason analysis found that, if you assume last season was an accurate reflection of the center's ability, Bynum is as good or better than Dwight on offense. He remains fantastically efficient and has become a high-usage player. That's the combination you want, and why teams still drool over elite center prospects. (Inefficient centers do exist, but they are rare. Credit the proximity to the basket from which they work.)
Philadelphia is already strong in one offensive category: turnover rate, where the Sixers finished No. 1 last year, giving up just 10 percent of possessions. (That about nine turnovers in an average game, which is ridiculously tight.) Bynum should help the No. 20-ranked shooting and the No. 30-ranked free throw rate. (Among regular players, only Louis Williams -- now gone -- averaged more than 3.2 free throws per 36 minutes. Bynum earned 5.8 last season, and that should go up as he shoots more frequently.) The only area where the Sixers need offensive help and Bynum won't offer it is likely the offensive glass: he's only a bit better than departed Elton Brand was, and not as strong as also-departed Nikola Vucevic. The Sixers were No. 25 in offensive rebounding last year.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
There's certainly another subcategory for which Bynum won't help: three-point shooting. Only four teams took a lower percentage of their total field goal attempts from long-range than the Sixers. Philly was judicious with the three despite being proficient (No. 8 in the NBA in three-point percentage). Among regular players, only Jodie Meeks, Williams and Iguodala took more than three threes per 36 minutes. Holiday was next in line with 2.8 at 38 percent conversion; he'll almost assuredly be asked to do more. It's not clear whether Turner (only one attempt per 36 minutes last season) will be able to significantly boost his outside attack, and I'm not sure whether Doug Collins will ask Hawes to try his hand out there. So it will largely come down to two new additions, in all likelihood: Nick Young (almost six threes per 36 last season in Washington and with the Clippers) and Dorell Wright (who led the league in makes and attempts in 2010-11). If those two can't shoot straight, the Sixers are in trouble here, and it could reduce Bynum's ability to boost the team's shooting percentages.
I'm also nervous about a disconnect between the two subsets of Philadelphia's top players now. Turner and Bynum would seem to be best suited in the halfcourt. Holiday and Thad are more up-tempo weapons. Collins presents a down-tempo attack, and that has actually worked pretty well for Young, at least. But at some point there could be a natural pull between the styles. I think the overall talent of the team will override that, but it's worth watching what kind of team the Sixers actually become with Bynum in place.
It will be miraculous if ...
The Lakers' visit on December 16 isn't about the greatest game we'll see early on.
Spencer Hawes doesn't earn a technical on Nov. 7 in New Orleans, one day after the Presidential election.
Jrue Holiday gets that max extension he's reportedly asking for.
An announcer doesn't accidently call Nick Young "Lou" sometime during the season.
Doug Collins remains calm in case of emergency.
The Clippers' announcer team doesn't claim that rookie Maalik Wayns is a Wayans brother.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Team MVP: Andrew Bynum
Team X-Factor: Jrue Holiday
Team Finish: 1st in Atlantic | 2nd in East
Best Championship Hopes: Ill-timed flu outbreak in South Beach, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.