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The Celtics’ Andrew Bynum problem

08.10.12 at 4:17 pm ET
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With Andrew Bynum now in the Celtics' divsion, their road back to the Finals just got tougher. (AP)

If there’s one thing Kevin Garnett hates about playing center, it’s playing against an actual center. Thankfully, there are fewer and fewer of those in the NBA. Unfortunately, most of them now live in the Atlantic Division.

While Dwight Howard commands all the attention, the Celtics are certain to be keeping an eye on developments much closer to home. Namely, Philadelphia, where the 76ers took a massive step in their overhaul by acquiring Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson in exchange for Andre Iguodala and two recent first round picks as part of a four-team blockbuster.

Bynum’s arrival in the C’s division coincides with the NBA debut of the well-regarded Jonas Valanciunas in Toronto as well as the presumably healthy return of Brook Lopez to the Nets. Those three plus Tyson Chandler — the reigning Defensive Player of the Year — gives Garnett more than 28 feet of headaches, 16 times a year.

The Celtics have always kept a close eye on Howard — they built their 2010 team with the idea of beating the Magic in the playoffs — but that has always been from a comfortable distance. With Howard in Los Angeles that’s a problem only if they both happen to make the Finals and Bynum stands as a much bigger issue now.

Bynum scored 36 points and grabbed 31 rebounds against the Celtics last season, both with Garnett at center, an experience that left him drained. Bynum is coming off his best season and will be just 25 years old when the season starts, so if the Sixers can convince the Jersey-native to stay, he could be a problem for a long time for the Celtics.

In an effort to help Garnett with the more physical demands of the position the C’s signed veteran Jason Collins and drafted Fab Melo, a legit 7-footer with a long way to go before he can be legit on the court. Collins is a defensive specialist, a huge man (listed at 7-feet, 255 pounds) with an array of skills and tricks in the post. But Collins was also a third big for most of the year in Atlanta, meaning Chris Wilcox will have to share some of the load down low.

Wilcox and Collins are the extent of the Celtics’ veteran backup big men. Rookie Jared Sullinger has a legitimate chance to make an impact on the rotation this year, and while team president Danny Ainge hinted that Sullinger could develop into a forward/center hybrid, he probably didn’t have legit 7-footers in mind.

Size isn’t everything of course, and the Celtics built their team with a nod toward matching up with the Heat, who have knocked them out of the playoffs two years running. The C’s loaded up on versatile guards and forwards and may try a number of different smaller, but faster lineups. (Yes, the Celtics could be faster this year. In theory).

Ainge’s approach made sense not only because of the Heat, but also because the roster of free agent big man was noticeably bare, while the shooting guard market may have been the strongest. Look at it this way: Would you rather play Courtney Lee and Jason Terry $5 million a year, or Marcus Camby and Ian Mahimi?

That won’t make it any easier when they have to lineup against the division’s centers, but even after the Bynum trade the Sixers are a bit of a mystery.

They traded Iguodala, of course, ending an era in which neither he nor the teams he played on were given their full due. That was the last move in a series that has seen them use the amnesty provision on Elton Brand while utilizing the cap space to sign Nick Young and Kwame Brown and let Lou Williams walk for the mid-level while also saying good-bye to Jodie Meeks.

The Sixers are so oddly constructed, a full breakdown is necessary:

PG: Jrue Holiday

Wings: Evan Turner, Dorell Wright, Thaddeus Young, Jason Richardson, Nick Young.

Bigs: Bynum, Brown, Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen, Arnett Moultrie.

The Sixers have one natural small forward — Wright — and one power forward in Allen. The plan appeared to be using Hawes at the four, which is … interesting. Forgetting natural positions, there’s now a glut of shooting guards along with Turner, who may be the most important holdover on the roster. That’s on Doug Collins to figure out and the relationship between the demanding coach and the strong-willed player will be closely watched.

All that said, the Sixers are way more interesting than they were 24 hours ago and may be closer to the second or third seed in the East than the seventh. That’s how good Bynum can be. This isn’t the worst-case scenario, i.e. Howard on the Nets with Deron Williams, but it’s close enough to it to suggest the Celtics’ path back to the NBA finals just got much tougher.

Read More: Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett,
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