While the Los Angeles Lakers received most of the headlines in the Dwight Howard mega-deal, the new-look Philadelphia 76ers are nearly as intriguing. Andrew Bynum, still only 24 years old, is a legitimate franchise player. Now, for the first time in his seven-year NBA career, he will get the chance to be one.
Bynum, a mammoth 7’0, 285 center with deft footwork and a soft touch in the paint, is the most dominant low-post player in the NBA. In a league getting smaller and more perimeter-oriented by the year, he is the rare center who can force small-ball teams to adjust to him. With the highest usage rating of his career (23.6) in 2012, he produced eye-popping stats: 18.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks on 56% shooting.
However, he’s as well known for petulant behavior as dominant play. Bynum openly rebelled against the Lakers' coaching staff last year, launching three-pointers and ignoring them in huddles while refusing to apologize or take responsibility for his actions. In their first round victory over the Denver Nuggets, his “effort” getting back on defense was often inexcusable.
Combined with his lack of offensive consistency, his often indifferent attitude has colored his reputation around the NBA. But as Shaquille O'Neal once famously said, if you don’t give the dog a bone, he’s not going to guard the house. As a big man who depends on his guards to give him the ball, Bynum’s inconsistency and attitude issues have stemmed from a roster that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) maximize his considerable abilities.
When a great center is surrounded by elite three-point shooters, like Dwight Howard with Orlando, it forces defenses to concede either a 1-on-1 matchup in the paint or a wide-open shot on the perimeter. In contrast, the Lakers' perimeter role players -- Ramon Sessions, Metta World Peace, Matt Barnes and Devin Ebanks -- couldn’t space the floor. In the playoffs, Denver and Oklahoma City often left them wide open to double Bynum and Pau Gasol in the paint.
Their struggles to get the ball inside often left it in Kobe Bryant’s hands, a role he was only too happy to fill. Despite shooting only 43% from the floor, Kobe took an egregious number of shots last season, leading the NBA with a monstrous 35.3 usage rating. Kobe struggled to coexist with a prime Shaq, one of the ten greatest players in NBA history, so it’s no surprise his relationship with a developing Bynum was shaky.
For the last several years, Bynum has been an understudy to a star who wasn’t willing to share the spotlight. From 2009-2012, his usage ratings were 20.7, 20.8, 17.6 and 23.8; Kobe’s were 32.2, 32.3, 35.1 and 35.7. And when Kobe took 33 shots without handing out a single assist in their season-ending playoff loss to Oklahoma City, the dominant storyline was whether his teammates had let him down. There’s a reason Howard was so leery of becoming a member of the Lakers.
Bynum walks into a completely different situation with Philadelphia. The 76ers have been an afterthought since Allen Iverson began to decline nearly a decade ago, while the departures of Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams have created a giant hole in their offense. Bynum instantly makes them relevant, and with a team built around him, he’s a darkhorse contender for the 12-13 MVP Award.
In his last two seasons with the Magic, Howard, who lacks both Bynum’s feel for the low post and his touch at the free-throw line, had usage ratings of 27.2 and 26.1. If Bynum receives a similar amount of touches for the 76ers, he could average 24+ points and 12+ rebounds a game next season. Even if his field goal shooting declines 2-3 points due to his increased usage, he would still be at 53-54%.
Philadelphia’s roster, meanwhile, will complement him far more than the Lakers' ever did. Instead of older players who can’t shoot, he’ll be surrounded by athletic perimeter players who can. It’s an ideal team for Bynum, who can protect the rim at an elite level but isn’t as comfortable moving his feet on the perimeter.
Jrue Holiday, one of the best young PG’s in the NBA, is a solid three-point shooter (36%) who should thrive with the increased responsibility he will have in 12-13. On the wings, Jason Richardson (37%), Nick Young (36%) and Dorrell Wright (36%) will provide Bynum with enough space to dominate on the interior. Evan Turner will never live up to his No. 2 overall selection in 2010 and his lack of a three-point shot (22%) is a concern, but he should be more effective playing off of Bynum in a more structured offense.
Neither Spencer Hawes nor Lavoy Allen has the athleticism to be a high-level power forward, but they’re both capable of stepping out and hitting an 18-20 foot jump shot. Thaddeus Young isn’t a great fit with a low-post scorer, but he’ll continue to be an excellent weapon for Doug Collins against second-unit big men. Down the road, rookie Arnett Moultrie, an athletic and versatile 6’11, 235 big man, could become one of the steals of the 2012 draft next to Bynum.
With Derrick Rose’s status for the 12-13 season still in the air, the Miami Heat are the only team in the East who Philadelphia should fear. At the same time, Bynum’s size makes the 76ers the only real threat to the Heat, since they wouldn’t be able to play their new-age small-ball frontcourt of Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Shane Battier in a possible playoff series.
Big men traditionally take longer to develop than guards, and if Bynum has put his injury history in the past, he still has an enormous amount of upside potential. Howard is a better fit with Steve Nash, but Bynum could become the better center in Philadelphia. 43 years after the 76ers sent Wilt Chamberlain to Los Angeles, the Lakers may have finally returned the favor.