I must admit it took me several months to come to grips with the bounty of good fortune bestowed on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2012 Eastern Conference playoffs. After a blazing start to the season, the Sixers collapsed down the stretch, backing into the final playoff spot and date with the number one seed, the Chicago Bulls. You all know what happened next: a medical catastrophe that could only have been topped by a team bus contaminated with hantavirus - Derrick Rose finished by the end of game one, Joakim Noah finished by the end of game three. As I watched the bodies mount over on the Bulls' bench, I joined Knicks fans everywhere in asking, "Why couldn't we have ended up the eighth seed?"
The question haunts me to this day: how would the Knicks have fared against a decimated Bulls squad? Fortunately, Seth has allowed me access to the crack team of quantum physicists who work in the P&T Research Department. Using their patented What-If machine, I was able to explore a hypothetical Knicks - Bulls matchup:
Game One: Bulls win, 96 - 85. Derrick Rose goes down with a knee injury in final minutes.
Game Two: Knicks win, 99 - 86.
Game Three: Knicks win, 104 - 90. Joakim Noah goes down with a knee injury.
Game Four: Knicks win, 109 -81. In the final minute, Omer Asik slams Mike Bibby into the scorer's table, Bibby blows out his knee as a result. As they see their teammate being mauled, Tyson Chandler, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert all take three steps off the bench before stopping themselves. After the game, The NBA suspends all four of them for the rest of the series.
Game Five: Bulls win, 111 - 65. Jared Jeffries and Baron Davis collide trying to execute a pick-and-roll, both suffer season-ending knee injuries. The remaining Knicks substitutes leave the bench to help their fallen teammates. The NBA immediately suspends them for the rest of the series.
Game Six: Bulls win by forfeit. Down to three players, Knicks coches Mike Woodson and Herb Williams leave the bench and ask to be put into the starting lineup. The NBA immediately suspends them for rest of the series.
Game Seven: Bulls win by forfeit. Amar'e Stoudemire kicks a fire hydrant and breaks his foot, just because.
I don't know about y'all, Knick fans, but considering Shump wasn't among those who blew out their knee, I'd take this scenario in a heartbeat.
Hate on the Sixers all you want for their good fortune, but they proved their mettle in round two, taking the favored Celtics to seven games. This was a pretty damn good team - a 43-23 team by the Expected W-L metric - that stumbled down the stretch and struggled in close games. Going into the off-season management had two choices: they could try a few minor tweaks to the roster that almost made the conference finals, or they could blow it up and start all over.
Lawdy-Lawd, did they ever choose the latter. If you go by this 82 Games metric, four of their top five players from last year are gone - Lou Williams, Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand and Jodie Meeks. I know this team was flush with talent on the wing, and some of those pieces were redundant, but did they really have to get rid of everybody?
Lou Williams and Jodie Meeks were both free agents at the end of the season, and the Sixers chose not to pursue either player, opting instead to sign Nick Young. Let's take a look at how each performed last season:
Now, I may be not a fancy, big-city basketball analyst (R.I.P. Matlock), but it seems to me that both Williams and Meeks were clearly better than Nick Young. Williams signed a long-term deal with the Hawks, and the Sixers were probably wise not to match, but I don't understand their lack of interest in signing Jodie Meeks. He signed a two-year, $3 million contract with the Lakers - a terrific deal for them that makes me want to bang my head against a wall. Instead, the Sixers signed Nick Young to a $5.6 million deal. Why? I'm sure he'll kill the Knicks at least once this year with a 6-for-8 from downtown performance, but I still feel safe in saying that Nick Young is not a particularly good basketball player.
The Sixers also amnestied Elton Brand, making the classic mistake of confusing a massively-overpaid player for a useless player. Brand never lived up to his massive contract in Philly, but he's still a pretty good player - I know Knick fans are happy to see him go. He's also in the last year of his contract, so they managed to cut him loose just as he finally became valuable as a trade chip. They resigned Spencer Hawes, who was good last year, but not quite as good as Brand; he also doesn't have much of a track record of sustained NBA success.
Of course, all of these moves pale in comparison to the main event: the Iguodala - Bynum trade. Andre Iguodala has been such a good player for the Sixers, and the unquestioned leader of a defense that was 3rd in the NBA last year, but one can't help but be impressed by the haul the Sixers got in return. Andrew Bynum is the most talented center in the NBA outside of Dwight Howard, and he's still only 24 years old, as hard as that is to believe.
At this point in the preview, I'm supposed to say that Bynum is now the undisputed Best Center in the East, and he's set to tear-ass through the division. As a Knick fan, however, I'm not at all prepared to make that statement - for the Knicks have a center by the name of Tyson "The Balls" Chandler. You can check out this article by Paul Chillsap if you want an in-depth look at the greatness of Tyson. I'm not here argue that Chandler is the better player, only that the Chandler-Bynum debate is closer than many NBA observers are willing to admit. Bynum has a monopoly on the traditional stats while Chandler beats him in many of the nerd stats, like win shares and wins produced per 48 minutes.
Let's take a look at their recent head-to-head match-ups. Though they only played once last year, a game in which both players were overshadowed by the now-famous Kobe-Lin duel, Chandler held Bynum to just three points on one-of-eight from the floor. Now, Knick fans are used to seeing that kind of shooting performance from a big after years of watching Jared Jeffries, but it's not quite what you'd expect from the Best Center in the East. That's only one game, and it's hard to draw conclusions from such a small sample, so let's take a look at their previous match-up - a four-game kerfuffle in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs in May 2011:
Obviously Chandler didn't score much in the series, but we all know that's not his game. One thing to notice, besides all the W's next to Tyson's name, is how rarely Bynum got to the line. I hope Knicks fans remember that they next time they want to complain about Tyson fouling too much. As you can see, Bynum dominated games 2 and 3, but Chandler and completely shut him down in games 1 and 4; he shot below 40% in both games. You may remember that Bynum ended his game 4 by getting thrown out for cold-cocking JJ Barea. If Bynum is so clearly the best center in the conference, why is he as likely to score six points and assault a tiny Puerto Rican guard as he is to throw up a 20-an-10 when facing Tyson Chandler? The answer, at least to me, is that these two players are much closer than most NBA observers are ready to admit. I think both Chandler and Bynum fit perfectly into their current team - the Sixers need a big who can score, especially at crunch time, and the Knicks need a defensive anchor who doesn't require the ball to be effective. Bynum has a big advantage in that's he's five years younger, and most franchises would take him over Chandler in a heartbeat, but try to take Tyson away from the Knicks and the fans at MSG would start a riot that would make this week's cover of Newsweek seem tastefully understated.
So which Sixer is under the most pressure this season? Call my crazy, but I don't think it's Andrew Bynum - in fact, I'd argue that Bynum is under less pressure, relative to his coach and teammates. How can this be? This cognitive dissonance comes from the fact that the NBA culture that fans believe exists bear little resemblance to the NBA culture that actually exists today. We fans would like to believe that Bynum will be motivated this season by the pressure and opportunity of finally being the "man" on his own team and playing for a new deal. If he wants a max deal, we say to ourselves, then he'll have to grow up and play to his own prodigious talent.
Look, Andrew Bynum is already getting a max deal...unless he loses a limb or takes a run into the stands, World Peace-style. The free agent market is all about supply and demand - quality centers are the rarest of all basketball commodities, and every team needs one. Brook Lopez just got himself a max deal, for God's sake - and he missed nearly all of last year and wasn't that good to begin with. If Brook Lopez got the max, Bynum's getting the max...it's that simple. We'd all like to believe that Bynum is under pressure to stay because the Sixers traded their best player for him when, in fact, the opposite is true. Bynum has the Sixers organization by the collective short-and-curlies. Rod Thorn can't afford not to sign Bynum after trading Iguodala to get him.
This kid is 24-years-old, and by all accounts not the most mature 24-year-old in the world, and has spent his entire career in the shadow of Kobe Bryant; now he's the absolute center of the basketball universe in Philly. Do you honestly think he won't take advantage of the situation? The entire organization - front office, coach, teammates, even fans - will have to bend over backwards to convince him to stay. And even if his teammates despise him and the fans boo him unmercifully, teams with cap space will line up to sign him. Such is life in the NBA. I expect Bynum to play well this season, because he's a rare talent and I believe this is situation is what he wanted for himself, but if he sours on the coach, his teammates or the fans, the situation could get ugly in a hurry.
The two players who will be most responsible for convincing Bynum to resign with Philly are Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. Thad Young is probably the best returning Sixer, but Holiday and Turner are the ones with the untapped talent to turn a good team into a great one. Jrue Holiday is already a good defender and a steady hand at the point who has cut down his turnover numbers each year in the league, but he's going to have to improve his overall offensive game, and learn to work with Bynum, if the Sixers are going to improve on their below-average offense from last year. Like Bynum, Holiday will be a free agent at the end of this season; unlike Bynum, his next contract will depend on his play this season. Evan Turner probably has the most raw talent on the team after Bynum, but during his first two years in the league he seemed content to play the role of a rich man's Landry Fields - a wing whose biggest attribute is his rebounding. He'll need to improve his shooting, especially from the 3 - 22.4% last season - to take some of the pressure off Bynum. If Holiday and Turner can make "the leap," then the Sixers will have their own Big Three - loaded with players in their early-to-mid-20's, they'll be a force in the Atlantic for the forseeable future.
Can their coach - noted taskmaster Doug Collins - pull it off, or will he wear out his welcome like he did with another talented young group in Chicago back in '89? The Collins - Bynum relationship will be one of the more fascinating stories in the league this season. Collins will likely be forever known as the guy who couldn't quite get over the hump with the team that later became one of the NBA's all-time dynasties. His assistant, Phil Jackson, took over his team and went on to win six titles in the next nine seasons. Now, Collins' best chance for a title depends on working with a talented-but-troublesome kid who grew up who grew up playing under - you guessed it - Phil Jackson. Will he succeed? He doesn't have much of a choice. No seat in the Atlantic is hotter than the one under Doug Collins. If Bynum doesn't like him, he's gone. If Bynum decides to fight him in practice, GM Rod Thorn would probably offer to hold him down so Bynum can wail on him. Poor Doug, at least he'll always have his medal from the '72 Olympics.Oh, wait...nevermind.
The Knicks and Sixers won't have to wait long for their first match-up of the season - they'll play a two-day home-and-home series Nov. 4 and 5. A two-game sweep by either team would be an important first step toward the ultimate goal - avoiding the Heat in the first round.