This article appears on ESPN.com.
By Kate Fagan
Andre Iguodala knew where he stood with the 76ers last season — on the outside looking in.
The signs, some of them quite literal, were everywhere: billboards throughout Philly featuring young guards Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner, and an offensive system in which Iguodala was expected to score without actually having any plays drawn up for him. The 6-foot-7 swingman was aware that if the franchise was given the choice, the Sixers would not choose him.
And so the elephant in the room for last season’s Sixers was that, although they were marketing the team with Holiday and Turner, they were paying Iguodala and power forward Elton Brand nearly $30 million, which is a hefty sum for a pair of guys you aren’t fully committed to for the future. The team’s identity was in flux, and you could see the effect of that tug-of-war, the loosening of the wheels, by the end of the season: A 20-9 start was followed by a 15-22 finish. And if it weren’t for Derrick Rose‘s knee injury, the Sixers most likely would have lost to the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, a once-promising season turned sour.
On paper, Friday’s blockbuster trade, in which the Sixers acquired centerAndrew Bynum from the Los Angeles Lakers and sent Iguodala to theDenver Nuggets, is a solid move that improves the team. In real life, in a world of on- and off-court dynamics and personalities and baggage, the trade is so much more than that for the Sixers. Yes, the team also gave up last year’s top pick, center Nikola Vucevic, 2012 top pick forward Maurice Harkless and a future protected first-rounder in exchange for Bynum and Magic shooting guard Jason Richardson. But they received something they’ve been needing since the original AI, Allen Iverson, was shipped to Denver: an identity.
This is now Andrew Bynum’s team.
As long as Iguodala remained in a Sixers uniform, the franchise was stuck in neutral. He is an excellent player to be sure. The problem was that, after eight seasons with the team, he believed he deserved franchise-player status and respect — the ball at game’s end, deference from younger guys, universal love from Philly fans — even though he was never going to get it, because he’s at his best as a complementary player. The Sixers were spinning their wheels. Holiday wanted to be the go-to guy, while Turner was desperate to prove his worth, and yet both players weren’t quite sure how to navigate Iguodala’s presence because neither was convinced the reins belonged in Iguodala’s hands. And when you’re one of the NBA’s have-nots, you can’t afford such wasted energy.
That energy suck won’t exist when Bynum steps onto the court. The 7-footer from New Jersey becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season, but the Sixers will be able to offer him more years, and more money, than anybody else. Because of that, Bynum will likely re-sign in Philly. And even if he doesn’t, the Sixers fans will understand this move. Nobody in that town likes to go down looking — and now the Sixers front office has finally done something about the team’s perpetual mediocrity.
In addition, Sixers coach Doug Collins, who had his fair share of struggles staying connected with last year’s roster, has eight new players onboard. (The team used the amnesty clause on Brand, allowing them to waive him without having his salary count against the cap; combo guard Lou Williams opted out of his contract and signed with the Atlanta Hawks; and free-agent shooting guard Jodie Meeks recently signed with the Lakers.) Don’t overlook the importance of fresh ears and a roster of players who haven’t yet heard everything Collins has to say. That means he has a clean slate to coach the heck out of this new team, and if past history is any indication, he surely will. Bynum will have to do more listening than he’s used to, but in exchange for his attention, Collins can offer him the 20 shots a game he craves.
Collins also has two things he has desperately wanted since arriving in Philly before the 2010-11 season: a dominant inside presence and strong outside shooting. In fact, the acquisition of Bynum and Richardson actually gives the team too much of both of those things. The Sixers now probably wish they hadn’t already signed two centers, Spencer Hawes ($13 million over two years) and Kwame Brown ($6 million over two), earlier in the summer. But Collins and general manager Rod Thorn will be loath to trade any of their bangers, especially having just endured two seasons with an undersized squad that struggled on the boards.
If there is still another move to be made by the Sixers, and there more than likely is, look for them to trade a shooting guard. Also, they desperately need a legitimate backup point guard and shouldn’t go into the preseason without one. The team now has a log jam at off guard because of the acquisition of Richardson, the signing of free agent Nick Young (one year, $5.6 million) and the presence of Turner, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2010 draft, who should be given a legitimate crack at the starting lineup.
Turner believes he is ready for prime time, and now that Iguodala is gone, so, too, are Turner’s excuses. Holiday, a point guard on the brink of NBA stardom, and Turner will now play with the Eastern Conference’s best big man, and the Sixers can finally find out if they have their backcourt of the future. Pencil in Dorell Wright at small forward and Thaddeus Young at power forward, where his perimeter speed should perfectly complement Bynum’s size, and the Sixers have a starting lineup that, on paper, is much better than last year’s.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Iguodala trade is this: Although many fans in Philly perpetually questioned his value, he has now proven his worth by helping deliver to the Sixers the marquee player he could never quite become.
The team’s identity crisis is over. And fans have Iguodala to thank for that.