What Happens Next: Attempting to Preview the Most Important 76ers Season in Nearly a Decade

What Happens Next: Attempting to Preview the Most Important 76ers Season in Nearly a Decade

We went into this off-season here at the 700 Level just wanting something different. It'd been a half-decade of basically the same movie with the 76ers—four years out of five where the Liberty Ballers squeaked into the playoffs with a record around .500, put up a good fight in the post-season but ultimately were exposed for their lack of talent, retooled with a couple low-leverage signings and trades and a mid-first-round draft pick, extended their core and ran the same reel again next year. If something didn't change this year, coming off a post-season where the Sixers managed to go seven games in the semis but clearly hit their peak as a team, and a number of key players were at or near the end of their contracts, we might have spent the rest of the decade winning 42 games a year and losing in the first round.

Well, something changed all right. A couple things, actually, and big things. For the first time in a long time, this Sixers team enter the next season with a ceiling higher than the first floor. How much higher that ceiling is remains to be seen, and whether or not the floor beneath them has gotten a little less steady is also up for debate, but at long last, there's reason for both fear and excitement when talking about the Philadelphia 76ers, rather than a lingering sense of existential dread. So let's talk break it down, in parts both tantalizing and downright frightening:

Things I'm Looking Forward to With the Sixers This Year:

1. Andrew Bynum On the Floor. Duh. The centerpiece in more ways than one of the team's myriad off-season moves, Bynum is the guy with the chance to take this team to the next level, the league's most promising still-developing center, a two-time champion, and a guy really without peer in the Eastern Conference. (Not to mention a guy who would've led the Sixers in points, rebounds, blocks and field-goal percentage with his stats on the Lakers last year.) He's the elite-level talent we've lacked on the Sixers since Iverson, and a post scoring presence we haven't really had since Moses. There could be games when he scores 30 points, grabs 20 boards and picks up five blocks, the kind of dominant performance that no one on the Sixers has been able to deliver in some time.

He's far from a sure thing, but the promise of greatness is exciting in its own right, and I can't wait to feel that rush in actual live-action Sixers basketball.

2. Andrew Bynum Off the Floor. Oh sure, there'll be moments when he does stupid, careless things that drive fans and media and Coach Collins—especially Coach Collins—absolutely batty. But one of the other things the Sixers have been missing wit their lack of star power is players with star-type personalities, which, while occasionally frustrating, can also be quite enjoyable. As sports writers, we are endlessly grateful for the 10% of athletes that aren't afraid to do weird shit—they're just more fun to write about than the Thaddeus Youngs and Jason Richarsdons of the world—and Bynum will doubtless give us endless amounts of blog fare, even if he never plays 48 minutes as a Sixer. (Though we, uh, hope he does play more than that.) And the hair—my god, the hair. He'll be the splitting image of Rasheed Wallace by year's end.

3. Three-Point Fast-Breaking. This was the most remarkable part of the pre-season to me, mostly because I don't think I'd ever seen this Sixers team do it before—they'd be running three men in the open court, and rather than the ball-handler being flanked on both sides by teammates cutting to the hoop from different angles, the other two guys would stop at the three-point line for an open trey. The team couldn't do this before when Jodie Meeks was their only half-decent deep shooter, but now that we have Dorell Wright, Jason Richardson and Nick Young, it's a legit possibility and a clever gameplan tactic, and it's downright tickling to watch.

The three-pointer in general should be a newfound weapon for the Liberty Ballers this year, and with Bynum in the middle hopefully drawing double-teams, our offense at its best could click like the Magic's did at its peak a couple years ago. Exciting stuff.

4. Jrue Holiday Taking the Reins. With Lou Williams and Andre Iguodala finally out of the way, there's no question that this is Jrue's team to run now. I was encouraged by how Jrue looked this pre-season—his scoring was erratic (though occasionally quite prolific, as with his 27 point, 12-14 shooting game in the pre-season opener), but his pasing numbers were solid, and he looked comfortable as the team's primary ball-handler and distributor. Especially with Bynum likely out at season's beginning, they'll need Jrue to be teh team's anchor, and I think he's ready to do it. I'm pumped to see what kind of numbers the Damaja puts up this year.

5. Spencer Hawes as Backup Center. I was against the team's re-signing Spence for two years and $13 million, mostly because I didn't have faith in him as a starting center and $13 million is too much for a backup. Both those things are still true, but now that we have Bynum, the Hawes signing does become more valuable, because even if he's not an acceptable full-time starter, he's a highly competent backup starter/big-minutes player, and Bynum will surely need such a fill-in at times throughout the season. Not to mention that the two can probably play some together, with Spence feeding Bynum from the high post like a poor man's Pau Gasol, though hopefully Collins' original idea of starting the two together won't actually end up coming to fruition.

Oh, and in case you haven't seen—Spence has been awesome in the pre-season. He's looked a whole more lot like the guy who briefly lit the league up at the beginning of last season then the guy who proved virtually unplayable against the Celtics in the playoffs last year. Of course, there's a big difference between pre-season against Cleveland and post-season against Boston, but still...it bears monitoring. And again, the hair. How did it possibly take the Big GOPper this long to grow a mullet?

6. Seeing the Old Sixers in New Places. I might write more about this elsewhere, but as jazzed as I am for the Sixers this year, I'm nearly as excited to see the guys no longer on the team making hay in new places—Elton Brand in Dallas, Jodie Meeks in LA, Lou Williams in Atlanta, and of course, Andre Iguodala in Denver. Wish 'em all the best, and to anybody considering booing any of them when they make their first visit back to the Wells Fargo Center as an opponent, shame on you, good sir.

7. Evan Turner. The Extraterrestrial begins his third year as a Sixer, finally free of being redundant on the same roster as Andre Iguodala. Finally, Turner should be free to do his swiss-army-knife thing on the wings for the Liberty Ballers, without having to worry about being unplayable at the same time as their most valuable player, With Jrue patrolling the perimeter and Bynum anchoring the middle, they'll need Turner cutting to the basket and hitting mid-range jumpers—as well as crashing the boards and getting the ball moving in transition—to get to the next level. And of course there's no telling what kind of trouble he'll get up to on Twitter, what weird Philly locations he'll instagram himself being dorky at, what kind of off-court chemistry he and fellow kook Bynum will have...it's always an adventure with ET, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Things I'm Not Looking Forward to With the Sixers This Year:

1. Andrew Bynum On the Bench. As exciting as it is to start the season with Bynum on the roster, it's going to be quite the bummer when the news inevitably comes down that he'll be riding the pine
with knee pain on opening night, and who knows for how long after that. The really tough thing with Bynum's injury is that there's no timetable to it—all anyone in Philly can say is "he's ready when he's ready," which makes waiting out his injury about as stressful and irritating as waiting for a train with no scheduled arrival time. I almost wish they'd just say that Bynum's out for a hard six weeks, and we'd know he's coming back at the end of it, then spending the opening weeks of the season always hoping he'll be back the next game, and in all likelihood, always ending up disappointed.

How many games will Andrew Bynum play for the 76ers this year? I'd put the over/under at 60, and sadly, I'd probably bet the under. We can only hope that he plays enough games to find his place among his new teammates in time for the playoffs, or at the very least, to prove his worth to the team in time for us to decide whether he's worth a max contract in the off-season.

2. Tough Sledding for Coach Collins. Honestly, I don't think that Coach Collins' history with not making it past his third year with any of his respective teams necessarily spells doom for him. What spells doom for Coach Collins, in my opinion, is Andrew Bynum. I just can't see Bynum getting along with a disciplinarian like Collins for an entire season, and with injuries and perhaps some bad vibes exacerbating the team problems...I just think everything has to go right with the Sixers this year to ward off the impression that Collins is starting to overstay his welcome, and the smart money is certainly against everything going right for the Sixers this year.

3. Games Against the Miami Heat. As improved as I believe the Sixers to be this year, especially in their long-term outlook, I still think they're gonna get thumped by the Heat. Bynum will help them be competitive, hopefully, and Miami doesn't have anyone on the roster who should be able to deal with him down low, but they're probably gonna have to face the Heat without him once or twice, and even with him, I still think the talent gap is wide enough that Miami should still dominate Philly, in either the regular season or the playoffs. And that's gonna hurt to watch.

4. Figuring Out What to Do with Jrue Holiday. Though everyone is hoping Jrue takes that leap forward this season—and I do think he will—the Sixers will find themselves in a real quandary when it comes to re-signing him. Indications have the Damaja demanding a max or near-max extension with the Sixers, and though it's unlikely he'll deserve it, he might get it somewhere else, and then the Sixers have to figure out if it'll be worth overpaying him a bit to keep him here, or if they're better off cutting bait and finding cheaper point guard play elsewhere. It'll be a tough decision for the franchise that I'm very glad I don't have to make, and certainly don't want to have overcasting my '12-'13 Sixers season any more than necessary.

5. Evan Turner. As much fun and as endlessly promising as the presence of Evan Turner can be, the Villain had a rough time of it statistically in the playoffs last year—a measley 9.0 PER across 13 games, albeit with a couple big fourth-quarter shots to his credit—and hasn't exactly been setting the pre-season on fire, though some ankle trouble might have had something to do with that. As good a thing as it may be for ET that redundancy at his role has been eliminated this year, it also means that he's a little out of excuses, and in year three, if he doesn't start showing serious improvement, the Sixers might end up considering him an inessential part of their future, and letting him walk after he plays out his rookie contract next year. Put up or shut up time for everyone's favorite Eminem stan.

Things I Don't Know What the F%$* to Think About With the Sixers This Year:

1. The Power Forward Situation. Assuming Bynum eventually ends up a constant presence in the middle...who's starting alongside him, exactly? The smart money currently would probably be on either Thaddeus Young (offense, energy) or Lavoy Allen (defense, floor spacing), but nobody seems exactly like an ideal fit—not like, say, Elton Brand would have been had he not been amnestied to make cap space for Nick Young. Ultimately, I wouldn't be surprised if Allen, Young, Hawes and maybe even rookie Arnett Moultrie all get time starting alongside Bynum, with Allen being my bet for the eventual answer in the playoffs (if the team gets there, which I imagine they will). But there'll be a great deal of experimenting and substituting there—with injury likely to play a part as well—and at the beginning of the year at least, a whole lot of confusion.

2. Who Starts With Evan on the Wings? Or, as some might ask—will Evan Turner even finish the season as a starter? Collins might like having shooters complementing Bynum and Holiday too much to allow Turner and his poor three-point shot big minutes, so we might very well see a late-year starting lineup that includes Jason Richardson and Dorell Wright, with ET resuming his night shift duties. But at first, at least, Turner will start, and it's a tossup as to who plays alongside him at the two or three. My guess would be Jason Richardson at first for his steady shot, experience playing with a dominant big man and veteran presence, but if Dorell keeps playing like he did in the pre-season, that might get switched up once or twice.

3. Who's Good in the East? Aside from Miami as the prohibitive favorite, and probably the Celtics right behind them, it's hard to tell where the Sixers slot in amidst the rest of the conference. Will the Pacers regress? Can the Bulls withstand a season spent largely without Derrick Rose? Are the Nets for real? Will the Knicks finally put it together? None of it seems certain, and if Bynum is healthy for most of the decision, I could see them ending as high as third in the East standings. But if things break right for a couple other teams and Bynum takes a while to get right (or never fully does), I could also see them falling back to their traditional seventh or eighth seed, if not out of the picture altogether. We probably won't know until at least halfway through the season about where the Sixers rate, and even then, the post-season picture might remain a mystery.

4. Evan Turner. You really just never know with this guy. Every time you think he's turning a corner as a player, he goes 2-14 with five turnovers. Every time you think he and Coach Collins are finally in sync, he misses an assignment, complains about a foul call and gets benched halfway through the second. And every time you think he's just not gonna get there, he posts a 25 and 10, or hits a big shot in a big moment, and makes you think maybe he could reach his potential after all. I can't even fathom how anyone thinks they could predict what he'll do in his third season, and I certainly won't try to do so myself—I just look forward to the rollercoaster, drops and all.

Of course, I can't do a preview column (especially one of this length) without making at least a couple predictions, so I'll end by calling the following:

Sixers finish the season 47-35
Bynum only plays 55 games, but the team goes 15-12 in the games he misses
Bynum ends the season averaging 20 and 12, though his field goal percenta
ge will drop to around 50%
Jrue Holiday jumps to 17 points and eight assists a game, and gets some consideration for Most Improved Player
Thaddeus Young averages a career-high in scoring and rates as one of the season's biggest late-round steals across fantasy leagues
Nick Young plays only sparingly by the second half of the season, but hits at least two game-winning or game-sealing shots anyway
Sixers win a first-round series, but lose to the Celtics again in the second round
Sixers re-sign Bynum to a max contract in the off-season

Season starts Wednesday night at home against the Nuggets. Go Sixers.

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores career-high 43 points in Raptors' win

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores career-high 43 points in Raptors' win

TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan scored a career-high 43 points and the Toronto Raptors rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Boston Celtics 107-97 on Friday night.

DeRozan shot 15 of 28 from the floor as he surpassed his 42-point effort against the Houston Rockets on March 30, 2015, helping the Raptors overcome the absence of fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry. Lowry sat out with a right wrist injury.

Serge Ibaka, acquired by trade from the Orlando Magic last week, scored 15 points in his debut, while fellow newcomer P.J. Tucker, picked up from the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, had a game-high 10 rebounds and nine points in his first game for his new team.

Isaiah Thomas scored 20 points for Boston, which also got 19 points each from Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart (see full recap).

Westbrook triple-double lifts Thunder over Lakers
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook scored 17 points in his 28th triple-double of the season, and his new teammates fit in seamlessly as the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 110-93 on Friday night.

Westbrook also had 18 rebounds and 17 assists for the 65th triple-double of his career.

It was the first game for new Thunder players Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, acquired Thursday in a trade with the Chicago Bulls. Gibson scored 12 points and McDermott added eight, even though they arrived Thursday night and weren't even available for shootaround on Friday.

Alex Abrines and Andre Roberson each set a career high with 19 points, and Steven Adams added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Thunder.

D'Angelo Russell scored 29 for the Lakers (see full recap).

Pacers beat Grizzlies to snap six-game skid
INDIANAPOLIS -- CJ Miles made five 3-pointers and scored 17 points, Paul George had nine points and nine rebounds after remaining with Indiana following the trade deadline, and the Pacers snapped a six-game losing streak with a 102-92 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.

Monta Ellis finished with 16 points, Myles Turner scored 12, and Lavoy Allen, Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young each added 10 for the Pacers.

The Pacers outscored the Grizzlies 64-42 across the middle two quarters and never relinquished their lead, leading by as many as 27 points in the second half. The Grizzlies finished the game shooting 41 percent from the floor (35 for 84).

Troy Daniels had 13 points for Memphis and Marc Gasol scored 12. Indiana outrebounded Memphis 50-39 and scored 29 points off 17 Grizzlies turnovers (see full recap).

Thrust into bigger role, Sixers' Holmes stars in win over Wizards

Thrust into bigger role, Sixers' Holmes stars in win over Wizards

BOX SCORE

For as much as the Sixers’ bigs are talked about, Richaun Holmes often is left out of the conversation. 

He’s not the centerpiece of the team like Joel Embiid nor was he heavily involved in trade talks like Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. He is the backup center who bides his time on the bench and quietly stays ready when he gets the nod.

And on Friday, he was the standout player in the Sixers’ 120-112 win over the Wizards (see Instant Replay)

“He’s been sort of the person that people forget about because of the logjam of five men,” Brett Brown said. “We all sort of think, ‘Well, he should just accept it because he’s behind Joel and Nerlens and Jahlil. Good ol’ Richaun. Go to the D-League and it’s OK.’ And that doesn’t work. He’s a pro, he’s competitive. He’s handled it. He’s really been a wonderful teammate.”

Holmes was bumped up in the rotation following the trade of Noel to the Mavs. He moved into the second-unit role while Okafor started in place of the injured Embiid. 

Holmes recorded his first double-double with 12 points (6 for 9 from the field) and 10 rebounds (three offensive). He also blocked a career-high five shots, tying Embiid for the most by a Sixer this season. The second-year big man put together this impressive performance in 26 minutes off the bench. 

“Just play hard,” Holmes said of his approach. “Just go out there, show what you’ve been working on, play hard every second you’re out there. That’s the motto I’ve got.”

Holmes is averaging 16.1 minutes and has appeared in just 32 of the Sixers’ 57 games. This season he also spent time with the Delaware 87ers of the Development League to get playing time. Holmes embraced an opportunity similar to Friday’s a month ago when he scored 18 points in as many minutes against the Clippers. 

“I try to approach every game this season the same way, whether everybody was playing or people were hurt,” Holmes said. “Prepare like I’m going to play 30 minutes a game. I think having that mindset helped me to stay ready at all times and be aggressive when I had a chance.”

Brown did not rule out the possibility that Holmes could start at some point if he continues this production. The Sixers are limiting Okafor to 20 to 24 minutes per game, according to Brown. That, combined with Embiid’s injury, could lend itself to an increased role for Holmes. 

“I think in that environment, it wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary for Richaun to get a start from time to time,” Brown said. 

Even if he remains on the second unit, Holmes proved he can provide a spark off the bench. Dario Saric noted how Holmes’ impact on both ends of the floor bolsters the frontcourt in addition to a more offensively-minded Okafor (11 points, two rebounds). 

“I think he played unbelievably good in both ways,” Saric said. “Everybody knows he’s an elite guy finishing around the rim, and he stepped in Nerlens’ place, he replaced him unbelievably good. I hope he will get the same minutes for the next game because we have Jahlil, who is more like a post-up player, who likes more to score from the low-post block, and we for sure need some guy like Richaun who will play in both ways." 

Perhaps the person least surprised by Holmes' game was Holmes himself. It was the result he puts in long hours to produce.

“It’s all about the grind,” he said. “All about keep working, keep trying to move up, keep trying to get better every second and it’ll pay off.”