The Philadelphia Sixers organization made one thing clear in the offseason when they shipped all-star forward Andre Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets in order to acquire center Andrew Bynum from the Los Angeles Lakers—their goal was to build a championship contender.
As the starting center for the Lakers in the 2011-12 season, Bynum posted career numbers of 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks on his way to his very first all-star appearance.
The idea was to bring the highly gifted 25-year-old center to Philadelphia where he could establish a bond between guard Jrue Holiday as well as forwards Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner on the basketball court.
So far this season, the plan has yet to come to fruition as Bynum continues to recover from his offseason knee surgery.
While Bynum has been sitting, the trio of Holiday, Young and Turner has shown tremendous growth from the extended minutes each of them has received compared to a season ago.
Holiday has career highs in points (19.3), rebounds (4.2) and assists (9) while being voted by the coaches into his very first all-star game. Holiday and Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook are the only two players in the NBA who are averaging at least 19 points and eight assists per game.
Young, who started this season at power forward, has career highs in rebounds (7.4), assists (1.7) and steals (1.6), while he's averaged just over two points more than his career average in scoring with 14.9 per game.
Turner hasn't been nearly as consistent of a player as Holiday or Young this season, but he's shown flashes of the type of player he can be. As the No. 2 pick in the 2010 NBA draft, there's always been high expectations surrounding Turner.
In his first season as a full-time starter, Turner also has career highs in scoring (13.9), rebounds (6.6) and assists (4.5). The only other players in the NBA averaging at least 13 points, six rebounds and four assists this season are forwards LeBron James of the Miami Heat and Kevin Durant of the Thunder. That's some pretty strong company for Turner to be associated with.
It's been tough sledding for the Sixers as a team without Bynum—they sit at just 21-26 for the ninth seed in the Eastern Conference. As good as Holiday, Young and Turner have been, none of them has as much of an impact on a basketball game as Bynum. When Bynum makes his likely return to the court immediately following the all-star break, expect the Sixers to be an entirely different team.
The Sixers were built this season for Bynum to be on the court, and as long as his knee is close to 100 percent, the Sixers are immediately going to become a top-4 team in the Eastern Conference. Bynum is going to draw doubles and even triple-teams every time down the court on the offensive end, where he can kick the ball out to the perimeter for wide open shooters like guards Jrue Holiday, Nick Young, Dorell Wright or Jason Richardson (if he returns to health). The Sixers also have a couple big men who have the capability of knocking down open jumpers in both Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen.
That's only half the equation. Bynum is also known as arguably the best offensive center in the game. His post-moves and signature jump hook are good for at least 15 points a game. If last season was any indication, he can also give you around 11 rebounds a game and give the Sixers a legitimate defender in the paint on defense.
The Sixers will suddenly become an opponent's worst nightmare. Stopping Bynum is hard enough, but stopping his surrounding cast—which features three legitimate young stars— as well is going to be next to impossible.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe reported at the beginning of the season:
"Andrew Bynum + shooters + two creative guards should be a reliable recipe for a top-10 NBA offense, a nice tonic for a team that couldn't score after a hot start last season. But the pouty Bynum, an uneven defender, has never been the centerpiece of a team, and the Jrue Holiday/Evan Turner combination has always worked with another perimeter security blanket—Iguodala or Lou Williams, both elsewhere—around to create shots. Holiday and Turner both have nice potential, but neither has shown anything like lead-dog playmaking ability—something the Sixers will still need, even with Bynum dominating down low."
Now that Holiday has become an all-star guard and playmaker this season, Lowe would probably agree that the Sixers becoming one of the NBA's top-10 offenses is almost a certainty at this point. Regardless of how good the Heat, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers are the next few years, none of them have a center who impacts a game as much as Andrew Bynum.
If Bynum can get back to full strength, the Sixers have a legitimate shot to win an NBA title down the road. All-star guard Jrue Holiday is only going to get better with Bynum, while Bynum will also make the jobs of T. Young and Turner that much easier as well. Holiday and Young are already locked into long-term deals, while Turner still has a little bit more to prove to deserve his own.
In approximately three weeks the Sixers will start a new era as a franchise. It's been 30 years since Julius Erving and the Sixers became NBA champions, the organization is hoping to bring that status back to the city of Philadelphia.