We've covered what the Sixers lost, and how their perimeter group was reshaped, now it's time to stop skirting the issue. When the Sixers snuck into the Dwight Howard sweepstakes and somehow convinced Orlando to take a package of bad draft picks and middling prospects instead of Andrew Bynum, they fundamentally changed who they are. From unorthodox to tried-and-true, the Sixers have changed their path. Now they just need to fit the pieces together and make it work.
Let's start by thinking about last season (or maybe even the past five seasons). How many times did someone get hot in a particular matchup and we all starting screaming for the coach to go back to him? Ride the hot hand? Keep going to the well until it was dry? What we were looking for was a reliable, indefensible option on the offensive end. Well, this year we shouldn't have to wait until someone puts an undersized, unathletic wing on Evan Turner on a night when his jumper happens to be falling. This year, the Sixers have a legitimate well. A legitimate option to turn to when possessions are tough, when defenses are stiff and when jumpers aren't falling. The other team is on an 8-0 run? Give it to Bynum on the blocks. Up by 3 with two minutes to go? Give it to Bynum on the blocks. Facing a Knicks lineup with Amare at the five? Give it to Bynum ten times in a row.
I'm not going to lie, I've found it extremely entertaining to see if the Sixers could somehow fit a square peg into a round hole and find a way to truly compete without a traditional offense (or defense). Last season, it was amazing to see their outside-in defense dominate teams. The whole "star for a night" offense, where they looked for one guy to carry them every night, or even every quarter was exciting, but ultimately, it wasn't repeatable. Every year we had the 2004 Detroit Pistons debate about whether a team with three or four second-tier players could win a championship, but we also knew the Sixers were at least one or two second-tier players away from finding out. With Bynum, the Sixers potentially have the pieces to put a legitimate contender on the floor, and a legitimate contender in the most traditional way.
Most people will tell you the league has changed. With Miami winning their first championship last season, the focus does seem to have turned away from dominant big men. But I think that argument may have a bit of chicken/egg to it. The fact of the matter is there really hasn't been a dominant offensive center in the league since Tim Duncan's prime. Dwight Howard could've been that guy, but he's been stuck on a team with no point guard his entire career. The one year he wasn't saddled with Jameer Nelson, his team went to the Finals (with Rafer Alston at the trigger).
When you're talking about size, athleticism and offensive skills at the center position, no one stands anywhere near Bynum. If Jrue is what I think he is, if he is what Collins has said he believes he is, then this team has the makings of a powerhouse. Solid distribution, dominant big man and shooting on the wings. That's formula.
I think it's going to be a bumpy road, to begin with. Especially with Bynum missing the vast majority of the preseason, and there are obviously a number of ways this can all go wrong (A major injury to Bynum, Jrue proving he isn't a legitimate true point guard, Turner thinking this is his team and taking 20 shots a game, Spencer Hawes getting exposed at the four and Collins refusing to adjust his rotations, Collins insisting on a turnover-phobic offense), but the difference between this year's team and last year's team is that there's a clear path. A clear direction they can take to go from fringe playoff team to a team that no one in the Eastern Conference can beat. Because no matter how good the Heat are, they don't have anyone who can stop Bynum and they aren't getting any younger. Bynum is 25, Jrue is 22 and the rest of the pieces are fungible. If Bynum can stay healthy and Jrue can grow into his role, the pieces are there. If they're smart about their personnel moves, and things go according to plan, they'll also be in a position to add another piece. If Turner emerges as a legit NBA player, the sky might be the limit.
There's nothing certain about this team, but there is hope. Hope for this season, hope for the future. I'm not sure we've been able to honestly say that for some time.