PHILADELPHIA — Working together for NBC at the Olympics, 76ers coach Doug Collins and Boston coach Doc Rivers caught up over dinner, talking hoops and sizing up the best big men in the NBA.
Little did Rivers know, Collins was keeping a secret — a 7-foot sized one.
“He said, ‘Who do you struggle with?’ I said, ‘Bynum,’ ” Rivers said with a smile. “Doug almost choked on his soup. He knew the next day they were about to get him. It was pretty funny. I didn’t appreciate it, but it was pretty funny.“
After a surprising run to the Eastern Conference semifinals allowed Philadelphia to shed a decade of mediocre basketball, the organization took a giant step in the summer, acquiring center Andrew Bynum from the Los Angeles Lakers, easily their most talented man in the middle since Moses Malone — and the best one in the East.
All of those accolades come with one crucial caveat. Bynum, 25, has to avoid further issues with his knees and play at least 70-75 games if the Sixers are going to build off last year’s run and compete for the Atlantic Division title.
If Bynum’s knees can withstand the rigors of a full season, look out, the Sixers could be every bit as good as advertised. If he’s sidelined for extended periods of time, though, the Sixers could return to that 40-win, fight-for-the-eighth-seed malaise of the last several seasons.
Bynum was held out of all basketball activity this preseason as a precaution after receiving knee treatment in Germany.
The 76ers open the season tonight against former Sixers guard Andre Iguodala and Denver.
The Sixers got Bynum in a whopper of a four-team deal that sent Iguodala, their All-Star and Olympian, to the Nuggets, and saw Dwight Howard traded to the Lakers. Bynum is a New Jersey native and the Sixers feted him with a lavish homecoming in August that included a public news conference in Philadelphia’s historic district. The setting for the bash was fitting because their last NBA title in 1983 seems like ancient history.
Bynum is coming off his best NBA season after averaging career highs with 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds while making his first All-Star team, starting for the West. He was the NBA’s third-leading rebounder and 20th-leading scorer, while also ranking sixth in the league with 1.93 blocked shots per game.
“He’s feared,“ forward Evan Turner said. “He’s a monster.“
But he won’t win postseason games alone. Feeling the roster had maxed out its potential, the Sixers dumped expensive veterans Iguodala, Lou Williams and Elton Brand as part of an overhaul that included the acquisitions of Jason Richardson, Dorell Wright, Nick Y76eroung, Maalik Wayns and Kwame Brown.
Outside of Bynum, the Sixers are counting on fourth-year point guard Jrue Holiday to break though into the small group of game-changing point guards. After sharing ballhandling duties with Iguodala, Collins wants Holiday to push the ball and become the point person the other four play off of.
“I become more of a playmaker,“ Holiday said. “I really have to set up my team, big men as well as shooters.“
The Sixers hope Turner, who never lived up to the expectations of a No. 2 overall pick, can thrive at small forward. Spencer Hawes may start alongside Bynum. Collins likes power forward Thaddeus Young and center Lavoy Allen in the starting lineup when Bynum can’t play.
While he loves the idea of Bynum down low, Turner balked at the suggestion the Sixers tapped out the talent of the 2011-2012 team.
“They never really fully utilized myself, Jrue and Dre,“ Turner said. “I think we maxed out the post situation. But we never went through me, Jrue and Dre. We did that for a couple of weeks and we scored, what, 115 points a game? We were running, rocking and rolling. I can say that for one part, but I can’t say that for the guards. We were high-level guards.“
Maybe, but Iguodala has since acknowledged his discontent his last two years in Philadelphia and it was clear both sides needed a clean break. Now, the Sixers have a problem solver in the middle. In the past, if a player slashed his way past the guards, it was an automatic bucket in the paint.
This season, he has to get by Bynum.
Bynum will be worth the wait.
“He knows what’s on his shoulders,“ Collins said. “He wants to be out there.“
In a coincidental twist, Iguodala will return to Philadelphia for the season opener. He was in London playing for the star-studded U.S. men’s basketball team when rumors of a deal broke. Iguodala texted Turner with the message, “It’s been a pleasure playing with you.“
Turner asked him what he meant and Iguodala told him he was about to be traded for Bynum. Bummed to lose his friend, Turner also knew it was worth the gamble.
“It’s rare to get the best big in the league,“ Turner said. “It’s great for our organization.“
And it could spell trouble for the rest of the East.