BOSTON — Doug Collins needed a leader, so he marched down his bench and grabbed the player that most closely resembled a leader for the Philadelphia 76ers. Almost forcibly, Collins inserted Jrue Holiday into the fourth quarter of last week’s game against the Celtics, who had cut a 16-point lead to four points.
With Holiday at the helm, the Sixers re-established their cushion and took a 14-point lead before edging the Celtics by six points. Last season, Holiday would not have been the first player Collins took by the scruff of the neck. This season, Holiday was not supposed to be that player, either. Things have changed dramatically for the Sixers in the past seven months, though, and Holiday has become a leader for the Sixers out of necessity.
Andrew Bynum was supposed to be the guy for the Sixers. They traded away Andre Iguodala, the face of the franchise, for the then-24-year-old center in a four-team deal in August. The Sixers knew about Bynum’s existing knee injury and his history of knee issues, but in their minds it was worth the risk for a potential franchise-altering big man coming off a career season in which he averaged 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds for the Lakers. Sure, he could stay hurt, they figured, but if he stayed healthy…
He stayed hurt.
The news that Bynum will miss at least another five weeks was not entirely surprising, given the Sixers’ ever-shifting timetable for his return since before training camp even started. Bynum has gone the traditional route with surgery, the untraditional route with platelet-rich blood injections and the cautious route with everything. Caution is wise wherever a 7-foot, 285-pound 25-year-old is concerned, because if he can stay healthy…
He is not healthy.
In Bynum’s absence, the Sixers have had some troubles, but no more than the predictable kind. Sixth man Lou Williams followed Iguodala out the door and veteran forward Elton Brand was amnestied. Dorell Wright, Nick Young and Jason Richardson are all newcomers playing significant roles, and the lack of chemistry has been apparent at times. The Sixers were the best team in the NBA at taking care of the ball last season. This year, they are 16th-best.
The schedule-makers did not do the Sixers any favors, either. Four of Philadelphia’s first six games were on the road and four of the first five came against teams that participated in last year’s playoffs. They also played a home-and-home with the rolling Knicks, who burst out of the gate at 4-0.
“I’m not going to overreact to two losses to New York, because right now, I think, arguably they could be playing as well as anybody in the East,” said Collins, whose team was 4-3 entering Wednesday’s game against the Pistons. “If Miami’s one, then they’re 1(a).”
Missing a key big man is nothing new to the Sixers. One of the more overlooked injuries last season was Spencer Hawes‘ bothersome Achilles tendon, which limited the center to 37 games. The Sixers were a different unit with Hawes, who is a reliable midrange shooter and one of the team’s best passers. Having no true point guard (Holiday is more of a small two-guard learning to play the point) or low-post threat, Philadelphia relied on Hawes to distribute the ball from the high post.
Losing Hawes will never be confused with losing Bynum, though. And whereas Iguodala or Williams were responsible for picking up the slack in anyone’s absence last season, they are no longer around to serve as a crutch for Holiday. As a result, Holiday’s usage rate is at a career high, he is taking more shots than ever before and he is handling the ball more frequently than ever. Every one of his statistics is trending way upward in a good way — with the exception of his turnovers — from points and assists to field goal percentage and free throw percentage, and even blocks.
This is good news for the Sixers. Perhaps it is not as good for them as Bynum getting healthy, but it is still good. Unlike Bynum, who is a restricted free agent at the end of the season and whose future in Philadelphia will depend in part on whether he can ever make it onto the court, Holiday recently signed a four-year extension. His increase in statistics is not the traditional contract-year bump by a player positioning himself for more money. Holiday has his money, or at least he has it coming to him via $41 million guaranteed.
Who knows if Holiday would have emerged if Bynum had been healthy? Maybe the soft-spoken kid from California would have continued to defer, just as he did to Iguodala and Brand, and the Sixers would still be wondering if their point guard would ever blossom. Now it looks like the Sixers have a pretty good point guard, and at some point in the next two months they might finally have a pretty good center, too.
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