30 in 30: PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

The NBA’s most tightly guarded secret this season may be that Philadelphia’s still in the playoff race. But how? Andrew Bynum, Philly’s centerpiece of the 4-team deal that sent Dwight Howard to L.A. in August, due to bad knees. Bynum has said he will return this season, though that looks increasingly unlikely; said head coach Doug Collins after practice Friday: “He looked like a guy who hadn’t played in 9 months. I don’t think any bells and whistles should be sent off that he’s close to playing.” Jason Richardson is out for the season, also due to a knee injury, and Thaddeus Young, whom Collins has called the team’s ‘most important player,’ has missed 7 games and counting.

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So what’s went right in Philadelphia? Well, the Sixers are 22-32 and only 4 games out of the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 playoff seed, currently held by a Milwaukee Bucks team 2-8 in its last 10. Jrue Holiday, now firmly the team’s primary 1-guard given Lou Williams’ departure, has ascended to an All Star status, with career-highs in points, 19.0; assists, 8.8; rebounds, 4.2; FG percentage, 45.4%; and minutes, 38.2.

But then there’s Philadelphia’s, you know, talent issue. Collins’ team is 29th in the NBA in scoring, at a mere 92.2 points per game, and, aside from Holiday, Young and Evan Turner, I’m not sure the Sixers currently have any pieces part of their long-term future. Bynum’s an established center in this league, who averaged 18.7 points and 11 rebounds per last season, but one who’s logged only one full 82-game season in his 8-year career. If I’m GM Tony DiLeo, I’d be hard-pressed to commit long-term to Bynum, especially at max dollars.

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Six players on the 76ers average double-figure scoring  — Holiday, 19; Young, 14.9; Turner, 13.9; Nick Young, 11.6; Richardson, 10.5; and Spencer Hawes, 10. A lottery pick by the Sacramento Kings in 2007, Hawes has shown flashes of a more-than-capable 7’1″ center, but his low rebounding rate, 6.4 per 25.6 minutes, is of concern. Young’s a confident, streaky scorer who’s not a consistent defender or, well, anything; he throws up 10 shots a game in less than 26 minutes, but, hey, someone’s gotta score!

Defensively, Philadelphia’s been stellar, tied for 6th in points allowed, at 95.7, and tied for 8th in opponent’s 3-point percentage. But Collins’ crew is much worse on the glass, tied for 26th in rebound differential at -2.6, showing how much they miss Bynum’s size and Young’s athleticism. Philly’s bench is 25th in the NBA in scoring, at only 27.4 points per night, many of which comes from rotation starters Young and Hawes.

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(Remember, over the summer, Philly lost Williams, 14.9 points per game; Andre Iguodala, 12.4; Elton Brand, 11.0; and Jodie Meeks, 8.4, while gaining almost nothing in return, at least in short-term scoring. Oh, and they also dealt Nikola Vucevic, who’s averaging a double-double in Orlando.)

The Sixers think they have something in 2nd-year forward Lavoy Allen, who’s undersized for a 4 at 6’9″, but weighs a bruising 255. He’s a limited scorer, 6.6 points per in 23.5 minutes, but a strong rebounder for his size — 5.6 per game — something sorely lacking on the Sixers’ current roster. Dorell Wright’s always intrigued me, with his size, a 6’9″ 3-forward, and range, a 36.3% 3-point shooter, but now in his 9th year in the league, the former 1st-round selection is running out of time to develop into the scorer he flashed in 2010-11, when he averaged 16.4 points in Golden State.

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The postseason is, in all likelihood, out of the picture, especially with 3 games remaining against the Miami Heat and 2 separate 4-game road swings. But the moves this team makes this offseason will go a long way in shaping their future — Philly has only 7 players on the books for 2013-14, excluding Kwame Brown’s $3 million player option, which my best guess is he picks up, to the tune of about $45 million. The big decision, of course, rests with Bynum, whose deal would presumably assume the rest of Philadelphia’s cap.

Or, should they let Bynum walk, Philly would enter the summer of 2014 with only 2 players on the books for the following year, Holiday and Young, for a combined $20 million. Then, there’s Turner’s $8.7 million qualifying offer, Richardson’s $6.6 player option and Arnett Moultrie’s $1.1 million team option. So, in theory, even if Philadelphia was ready to commit long-term to Turner, whom the Sixers were reportedly shopping before Thursday’s deadline, DiLeo would still have enough room on the cap to entice a max-level free agent.

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In the meantime, it’s a long road back for Philly, who, even with a healthy Bynum, is a fringe playoff team — best case scenario a similar semifinals departure, like in 2011-12. The more likely scenario: a few consecutive years of playoff-less basketball as the Sixers search for their next franchise centerpiece.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES

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