Sixers first-half review: Bynum's absence felt in big way

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Sixers first-half review: Bynum's absence felt in big way

Yeah, the waiting is the hardest part …
--Tom Petty

Undoubtedly, one single player and one solitary story have dominated the Sixers’ season.

No, we don’t need a road map to figure this out …

So as we sit and wait for Andrew Bynum’s knees to cooperate and give us a proper basketball season in Philadelphia, let’s contemplate the lost first half in which the Sixers limped to a 22-29 record that was defined by those pesky injuries and a dysfunctional roster.

Deep breath now …

Obviously, the Sixers were built with Bynum in mind. In a mediocre world -- forget perfect -- the Sixers’ offense and defense would all flow through the dominant big man. More importantly, the trickle-down effect that Bynum would create was supposed to be incredible. With a center demanding all of the attention, point guard Jrue Holiday wouldn’t face so many double-teams on offense, nor would he be the focus of every team’s pick-and-roll on defense.

Imagine Holiday with his quickness and passing savvy negotiating the offense without being held back by the total focus of the opposition’s game plan. Averaging nearly 19 points and nine assists per game, Holiday just might have been able to improve upon those statistics with a bona fide big man.

Bynum’s presence would have done wonders for the Sixers’ perimeter game, too. Remember during the exhibition season when the Sixers had a knack for drilling those transition and kick-out three-pointers? Wonder why that went away when the regular season began?

Nope, no need to think too hard. The reason why Nick Young, Jason Richardson and Evan Turner haven’t had those unfettered looks at the basket has been sitting on the bench in a stylish sport coat all season long.

So what do we make of the Sixers’ first half? Doug Collins said it has been his most difficult as a coach, which is understandable given the injuries and the frustration that manifested from them. But then again, injuries are a part of it. Every team has injuries, though maybe not to players as important as Bynum was to the Sixers. Still, it’s one thing to negotiate through injuries and hold the fort until the team is full strength again, and it’s yet another to be caught with your pants down when the injury bug bites.

Clearly, the Sixers got caught with their pants down.

How so? Well, aside from last year’s compressed, 66-game schedule and the 2006-07 season when a 19-year old Bynum played 82 games, the big fella has missed a significant portion of nearly every season of his career for injuries. In other words, Bynum is prone to getting hurt.

Without Bynum the Sixers have had second-year, 6-foot-9 big man Lavoy Allen starting at center for a majority of the season. Allen has been good in flashes, but he never has to look over his shoulder to worry about playing time because he sees Kwame Brown standing there.

Thad Young, clearly the Sixers’ most important player, has been dynamite as an undersized power forward, and again makes one wonder just how good he’d be playing alongside a true big man like Bynum.

The same goes for Spencer Hawes, who is solid with his high-post game, but sometimes has trouble when he wanders deep into the paint.

Indeed, the Sixers are game and giving an effort, but they clearly have been overmatched at times.

Sigh …

“I put a lot of responsibility on myself and I don’t ever want to use injuries as an excuse,” Collins told reporters on Wednesday. “I think excuses are for losers, for people who want to take a step back and say, ‘Woe is me, look what’s happened.’ I’ve never done that. If I did, I’ve never be where I am today. It’s not like I’ve been some great champion, but I think I’ve been a guy who’s sort of hung around for 40 years who’s using that mentality.”

But it can only get better, right?

Right?

The Sixers have to hope so.

First-half awards
MVP: Thad Young

Holiday seems like the obvious choice here since he’s the Sixers’ lone All-Star and could become the first player in team history to average more than 18 points and eight assists per game since Wilt Chamberlain did it in 1968. That’s some pretty heady stuff.

But just where would the Sixers be without Young?

This season, Young has thrived despite the fact that he’s been playing out of position. He took over the starting power forward spot out of training camp and never looked back. Along the way he has turned in 12 double-doubles, averaged 36 minutes per game, shot 52.2 percent from the field and averaged a career-best 7.4 rebounds and 15 points per game.

Better yet, Young has done all of this while routinely taking on the opposition’s best offensive player every night. In back-to-back games this month, Young held All-Star Carmelo Anthony to 8-for-28 shooting and then returned the next game to hold All-Star Zach Randolph to just four points, with two of them coming on a tip in late in the game.

Best game: Sixers 106, Celtics 100
Nov. 9, 2012 at the TD Garden, Boston

Clinging to a scant lead in the fourth quarter, the Sixers stood up to three late-game rallies by the veteran Celtics to win at TD Garden. The teams traded haymakers until there were 25.7 seconds left in the game when Turner sank a pair of foul shots.

With 21 seconds left, Dorell Wright forced a turnover from Jason Terry and fed Turner for another bucket with 17 seconds left.

Turner finished the game with 25 points and 11 rebounds while Jrue Holiday turned in 21 points and 14 assists to withstand a 20-assists performance from Rajon Rondo.

Worst game: Pistons 94. Sixers 76
Nov. 14, 2012 at the Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia

There are a number of games that could have fit this bill, but the loss at home to Detroit stands out the most. Not only did the Sixers shoot a season-worst 29.8 percent in this one, but also they lost to a team that went into the game with an 0-8 record.

Greg Monroe had 19 points and 18 rebounds in this one, while the Sixers were led by 14 points from Allen.

Notable performances
Lavoy Allen -- 14 points and 22 rebounds vs. Charlotte on Feb. 9, 2013
Spencer Hawes -- 21 points and 14 rebounds vs. Orlando on Feb. 4, 2013
Jrue Holiday -- 33 points and 14 assists vs. Toronto on Jan. 18, 2013
Jason Richardson -- 20 points and eight rebounds vs. Utah on Nov. 16, 2012
Evan Turner -- 22 points and 13 rebounds vs. LA Lakers on Jan. 1, 2013
Dorell Wright -- 28 points and six rebounds vs. Memphis on Dec. 26, 2012
Nick Young -- 30 points and five assists vs. LA Lakers on Dec. 16, 2012
Thad Young -- 29 points and 15 rebounds vs. Oklahoma City on Nov. 24, 2012

NBA draft profile: G/F Jaylen Brown

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NBA draft profile: G/F Jaylen Brown

Jaylen Brown

Position: Shooting guard/small forward
Height: 6-7
Weight: 223
School: Cal

Aside from Ben Simmons, Brown may be the most scrutinized lottery pick in the draft. A blue chip recruit, the Mariettam, Georgia, native chose to attend Cal, spurning schools like Kansas and Kentucky. That decision didn't appear to be a wise one, as Brown struggled with inconsistency playing in a system that really didn't suit his skill set. A slasher with crazy athleticism, Brown averaged 14.6 points in his lone season with the Golden Bears. 

Strengths
Brown can play above the rim and then some. He's a strong finisher and would be an excellent candidate for next year's dunk contest. He's an explosive athlete with a tremendous first step. There were games in which he lived at the free throw line. With his ability to blow by people and willingness to take on all comers at the basket, he had 12 games this season in which he attempted eight or more free throws.

His 7-foot wingspan coupled with his quickness could make him an elite defender. He's also very strong. He averaged 5.4 rebounds as a wing.

Weaknesses
Two pretty big ones: his jump shot and his instincts. Brown shot 29 percent from three. That's not good for a wing player. He also shot just 65 percent from the line. Again, not good for a wing player with a propensity to get fouled. He flashed the ability to hit shots, hitting 42 percent (10 of 24) from three in seven February games. There's inconsistency with his mechanics, which good coaching should be able to iron out.

His feel for the game is just not very good. He doesn't seem to understand what defenses are trying to do to him. Again, good coaching could go a long way in helping Brown here. He also had a tendency to be a little loose with his handle. He averaged more turnovers (3.1) than assists (2) per game. 

How he'd fit with the Sixers
Horribly. With the way the Sixers are currently constructed, Brown would struggle with the same issues he had at Cal. With all of the big men clogging the paint, Brown's slashing ability would be useless. If the Sixers were to deal a big man and get more shooters, Brown would be fun to watch with head coach Brett Brown's desire to push the basketball. This kid is worth the price of admission in the open floor.

NBA comparison
Andrew Wiggins but with a lot further to go. Wiggins was a much more polished prospect coming out of Kansas than Brown is now. But the size profile and athleticism are very similar (although Brown is stronger physically than Wiggins). Wiggins was also much further along with the development of his jumper. 

The moral of the story: when you're an elite prospect, go to a big-time school with a big-time coach if you want to properly develop your game.

Draft projection
He's probably a top-5 pick based on upside alone (I can't see him getting past the Pelicans at No. 6), although the weaknesses could scare off teams looking for a "safe pick."

NBA Playoffs: Cavs blow out Raptors for second straight Finals appearance

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NBA Playoffs: Cavs blow out Raptors for second straight Finals appearance

BOX SCORE

TORONTO -- LeBron James scored 33 points, Kevin Love had 20 points and 12 rebounds, and the Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to their second straight NBA Finals by beating the Toronto Raptors 113-87 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday night.

It's the third finals appearance in team history for the Cavaliers. Cleveland lost to Golden State in six games last year and got swept by San Antonio in 2007.

For James, it's his sixth straight trip to the finals, including four with Miami. He broke the 30-point barrier for the first time this postseason and finished with 11 rebounds and six assists.

"We needed LeBron to set the tone for us early and I thought he did that," coach Tyronn Lue said.

James will be the eighth player in NBA history to appear in six consecutive finals and the first who didn't play for the Boston Celtics.

"He's just a great player," Lue said. "He's a proven winner. He's always won over the course of his career. To go to six straight finals is unbelievable."

James got there by taking down a Toronto team that set a franchise record with 56 wins and reached the conference finals for the first time in 21 seasons.

After a second-quarter dunk, James shared some verbal barbs with rapper Drake, the Raptors' global ambassador and the man who popularized the nickname `6ix' for Toronto.

Kyrie Irving had 30 points and J.R. Smith added 15 for the Cavaliers, who will face the winner of the Golden State-Oklahoma City series on Thursday.

Cleveland would open at home against the Thunder but would be on the road against the 73-win Warriors, who trail 3-2 against Oklahoma City heading into Saturday's Game 6.

The Cavs will be seeking to end Cleveland's 52-year championship drought, the longest by any city with at least three professional teams. No Cleveland team has won it all since the Browns blanked Baltimore 27-0 to win the NFL championship in 1964.

"This city has been craving a championship," Lue said. "We have the right team and we have the right talent."

Kyle Lowry scored 35 points and DeMar DeRozan had 20 as the deepest playoff run in Raptors team history ended, much to the disappointment of a sellout crowd of 20,605 dressed in red and white T-shirts that formed a maple leaf pattern on either side of the court. Fans stood and cheered "Let's go, Raptors! Let's go, Raptors!" throughout most of the final three minutes.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said reaching the conference finals was "a tremendous learning experience" for his young team, one that's "a step ahead" in its process of becoming a championship contender.

"We're learning," Casey said. "We're not where (the Cavaliers) are right now. We're going to be."

A dejected Lowry said it was hard to see the positive side of Toronto's best season ever.

"Of course you're going to look back at some point but right now I'm disappointed," he said. "Simple as that, I'm disappointed."

Toronto prolonged the series with back-to-back home wins in Games 3 and 4 but never mounted much of a challenge to the conference champions in Game 6, falling behind by 21 in the third quarter.

The Cavaliers came in 0-4 at Air Canada Centre counting the regular season and playoffs, but looked much more like the team that handed the Raptors a trio of lopsided losses in Cleveland this series.

The Raptors trailed 88-78 on a jumper by DeRozan with 10:23 remaining but James scored six points in a 14-3 run that gave the Cavs a 102-81 lead with about 6 minutes left.

James scored 14 in the first and five of Cleveland's nine field goals were from long range as the Cavaliers led 31-25 after one.

After video review, the officials waved off a basket by Biyombo with 3:18 left in the period and gave him a flagrant foul for knocking down Love.

Tempers flared again early in the second when Richard Jefferson reacted angrily to catching an elbow from Jonas Valanciunas as the two battled for a rebound. Patrick Patterson came over and shoved Jefferson out of the way. Both Patterson and Jefferson were given technical fouls.

Cleveland made five more 3-pointers in the second and outscored Toronto 9-3 over the final 71 seconds to lead 55-41 at halftime. The Cavaliers made 10 of 15 3-point attempts in the first half, while Toronto was 2 of 12.

The Cavs led 78-57 after a 3 by Love at 3:53 of the third but Lowry scored 15 points as Toronto closed the quarter with a 17-8 run, cutting it to 86-74.

Tip-ins
Cavaliers: Shot 17 for 31 from 3-point range. ... Outscored Toronto 17-5 in fast break points.

Raptors: Finished their playoff run by playing every other day from April 29 onward, a 15-game run that started with Game 6 of the first round against Indiana.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.