NBA Season Preview: Philadelphia 76ers

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Today begins PBT’s team-by-team season preview, going through all 30 squads. We are starting in the deep Atlantic Division that could well send four teams to the playoffs, and we will move West from there. First up, your Philadelphia 76ers.

Last season: They were a slightly better than .500 team (35-31) that played great defense but struggled to score consistently. Their record got them the 8 seed in the east and they were doomed to another early first round exit until Derrick Rose blew out his ACL. With that gift they got past Chicago and pushed Boston to 7 games in the second round.

Key Departures: After years of rumors, the Sixers finally did trade Andre Iguodala, finding their way into the four-team Dwight Howard trade. As part of that trade, they did nave to give up Nikola Vucevic, who the franchise liked. They also amnestied Elton Brand, who played pretty well for them but was not worth the cost. Jodie Meeks took his outside shooting to L.A.

Key Additions: They added the second best center in the NBA in Andrew Bynum as part of the Howard/Iguodala trade, radically reshaping the roster and setting up some fun Bynum/Roy Hibbert battles in the coming seasons. They also added Jason Richardson and Nick Young to provide scoring at the two spot. They also added Dorrell Wright and No. 27 overall pick Arnett Moultrie.

Plus, this year the Sixers fans get to become the group that tries to convince themselves Kwame Brown can really help them if they just use him in the right situations. It’s a study in cognitive dissonance.

Three keys to Sixers season:

1) Andrew Bynum grows to handle the pressure of being the franchise guy. There is no doubt Bynum is talented and has been blessed with a body few in the NBA can deal with on the block (even if it is a bit fragile at times). In Los Angeles, he wanted a bigger role and was vocal about it while still being a good teammate most of the time. He is bright, he is thoughtful. But now he does not have Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol drawing the attention of defenders on the court and the media off it. This is his team, his spotlight. It is what he wanted.

Bynum is going to have to be the anchor on defense — he is going to have to be more active on the high pick-and-roll, his rotations will need to be consistently sharp not spotty. On offense, he’s going to have to recognize and pick apart teams when the double-team comes, and do it quickly. There is more, but the fact is Bynum can do all those things, he just hasn’t had to in the past for his team to have a shot at winning every given night. Now he does. There can’t be the lapses of effort when he doesn’t get involved early, there can’t be the moments of immaturity. It’s on him to step up. He can, but he has to prove it now. It’s that simple.

2) Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner need to take the next step. Together. The Philadelphia 76ers have potentially two of the best young perimeter players in the NBA. Holiday has been a good point guard — able to run the offense, set guys up — but needs his shot to finish better in the lane (he shot just 53.6 percent inside the restricted area and 37 from 3-9 feet) and maybe not take as many long two pointers (although he shot 40 percent on those). This is a contract year for Holiday, he needs to make a leap forward to really get paid.

Evan Turner’s showed flashes of looking like the No. 2 overall pick as the season wore on — he had solid rebound numbers and he moved the ball well. But he got outclassed in the playoffs, he’s got to hit threes at better than a 22.4 percent clip, he’s got to be consistent.

Turner had Iguodala and Meeks out taking shots and making plays on the wing, now they are gone and it is his job. He will start at the three and play some backup point, coach Doug Collins has said. The table has been set for him to make the leap, it is up to him.

3) Their defense cannot slip much. Last season the Sixers had the third best defense in the NBA, allowing just 96.6 points per 100 possessions (only Chicago and Boston were better). That is why they made the playoffs at all. With Andrew Bynum as a focal point in the post and growth from Turner and Holiday (plus Nick Young in the Lou Williams gunner off the bench role) we are expecting more from them on offense. But if the Sixers want to really take a step forward they need to still be a top 5 defensive team. Which is not going to be easy with the loss of Iguodala, one of the best perimeter defenders in the game today.

Andrew Bynum will help being a big presence in the paint (again, see point No. 1 about consistency) but guys on the perimeter have to step up and the team defense has to be there. If the offense gets better but the defense sags there will not be much improvement.

What one thing should scare Sixers fans? Andrew Bynum not re-signing with the team after this season. But, it shouldn’t scare them that much, I think he will. (He is not going to sign an extension, under the new CBA it makes far more financial sense for him to become a free agent then re-sign with a team, as Deron Williams did in Brooklyn.)

Bynum wanted to be the focal point of a major franchise, he is now. His ego will get fed and he’s closer to home (he grew up in New Jersey). Bynum is also a financially motivated guy and the Sixers max deal offered next summer will be one year longer and have larger raises than anyone else. But it is possible for this year to go sour, for the fans and tabloids to turn on Bynum and for him to decide he wants out as a free agent. If that happens, the Sixers essentially will have gotten nothing for Iguodala. It’s a concern, but not a huge one.

How it likely works out: After the Miami Heat in the East things are pretty fluid and a number of teams think they can be the two seed — Indiana, Boston, New York, Brooklyn. And you can put Philadelphia in that mix.

The question is, how much better are they now than the slightly above .500 team of last season? Is Bynum in the middle that much better than Iguodala on the wing (and Lou Williams off the bench). Can their defense hold while all their players take the steps forward expected of them?

I’m not convinced the Sixers are dramatically better short term, but I like what Philly did. Standing pat they might have improved to a six seed (probably 7-8) and would get bounced in the first round. Now there is a real chance for a Holiday/Evans/Bynum core to be very good and grow together over a few years.

I like the idea of going big with Bynum at the five and Spencer Hawes starting at the four in a conference where powers Boston and Miami are going small. Last year the Sixers were far, far to much of a jump shooting team that never got to the free throw line. Bynum will change that, he will score in the paint and draw fouls.

But I’m not convinced the success is instant or as strong as some in Philly expect. Bynum must adjust to his role and move the ball — the Sixers got off to a fast start last season in part because Spencer Hawes did a great job as a fulcrum moving the ball from the strong to weak side quickly. When Hawes got injured, they started to struggle. Now it’s on Bynum to do that job and it’s an adjustment.

Teams that expect a lot of guys to step up in the same year tend to have more fits and starts than a smooth, fast ride to the top.

I like what Philadelphia is doing, they are certainly a playoff team in the East and one that should have a goal of having their first-round series start at home. But I have a feeling their best years are two or three down the line, not this season.

Prediction: 47-35, which could be a four to six seed in the east. They are a team to watch, a team that might well be much better in April and May than November as they grow together. Last year they got out of the first round of the playoffs because of a fluke, if they get to the second round next season it’s because they are that good. And getting better.

James Harden helped recruit Lou Williams to Houston

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The Lakers had been shopping Lou Williams around in the run-up to the trade deadline, the only question was would they get a first-round pick for him. Rumors around the league say that Houston had offered them one weeks before, it was on the table, but the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office held their cards close and hoped a better deal would come through.

While all that was going on James Harden decided to ease the process and did a little recruiting calling up Williams, the sixth-man guard told Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

We all know what happened, Jeanie Buss removed her brother and Kupchak a few days before the trade deadline, Magic Johnston stepped in, called around, and quickly pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Williams to Houston (the Lakers also got Corey Brewer). Williams has averaged 14.5 points per game and had some strong performances with the Rockets, although he’s still finding his groove with the team on the court. Still, he’s been an upgrade for the Rockets’ bench.

Harden knew he would be, so he did his part to make sure it happened.

Take a look back at just how great Shaq was with the Lakers (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal was as dominant a force as the NBA has ever seen.

His peak years came with the Lakers, when paired with Kobe Bryant one the court — and Phil Jackson manipulating both of them — they won three titles (and arguably would have had more if they stayed together). Those Lakers teams were one of the NBA’s great teams.

Friday night, the Lakers unveil Shaq’s statue at Staples Center. Take a look back at some of Shaq’s Lakers highlights.

 

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”