Without him, coach Doug Collins was forced at times to start untested and unproven rookies Lavoy Allen or Nikola Vucevic in the middle. Elton Brand, undersized for his normal position at power forward, was thrust for many minutes in the middle, because he was really the most physical player Collins had to man the position.
So as word came down on media day Monday that newly acquired and anointed savior Andrew Bynum would be out for 3 weeks with a knee bruise, there certainly was - and is - room for concern.
But there is a different feeling around the coaching staff and players this time with the injury to the big man. Why? Because there are pieces to fill spots. Not only Bynum's, but others around the floor.
With Bynum out, the starting five thus far in training camp have been Hawes at center, Thaddeus Young at power forward, Evan Turner at small forward, and Jason Richardson and Jrue Holiday minding the backcourt. If Bynum were healthy, he obviously would be planted in the middle, with Hawes manning the "four" and Young probably moving to the bench. But Young could give Hawes a run for that starting spot at the "four," or could see many minutes at small forward.
In a scrimmage the other night, Turner often ran the point, with Holiday moving elsewhere on the court. Dorell Wright, all 6-8 of him, was playing power forward with the second team, but Collins said he could sometimes play at the shooting guard spot and loves the way he handles the ball. Allen can play the "four" or "five," depending on who else is in the game, and there's always 6-11, 270-pound Kwame Brown waiting in the wings to throw around his girth.
It is a roster Collins covets because of its diversity, one that will make it a lot easier for him to maneuver if his big man is down for any extended period - much unlike last season.
"We're going to really have to mix and match here in training camp to see who plays well with each other," Collins said. "They're going to have to bring out the best in each other. The key last year was that we got out to a great start [20-9], so we had a little bit of a cushion. This year . . . we have [eight] straight road games [Dec. 26 to Jan. 5]. When we start the season, it can't be where we work ourselves into it. When we come out, we have Denver, and then New York back-to-back.
"We have to be ready to go. I think there's a sense of urgency with our guys knowing that. The good thing is the guys that we brought in are very smart players, they have very high basketball IQs. Dorell Wright [had] 6 years with the Miami Heat. Jason Richardson knows how to play with a post player. These guys know how to space, how to feed the post, where to be. So it's not going to be anything new to them.
"We're not just going to be a halfcourt team. We're going to defend and rebound and push the ball, so that when Jrue and these guys get the ball, we push it in the open court. I think you're going to see a lot of transition threes for us this year. I think that could be a real strength. We have to get to know where our guys run and how to spread the floor and where they are on the court. We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things."
Even with Bynum out for now, the city has a buzz about the team that hasn't been around in quite some time. The players know it and are feeding off it.
"When I came here, the reputation wasn't as positive and the city really wasn't embracing us like they are now," Hawes said. "It's fun to have that relevance and to have that buzz about the team and the organization."
As for his role, whether it be at the "four" or "five" spot: "I think I have to adapt," Hawes said. "I think this offseason, knowing earlier on that I was going to make that transition and that I was going to be able to work on some things from the power forward position that was good for me. At first, I was a little worried, but the more basketball people I talked to who know my game, they stated that they thought it was a good move, and that gave me the confidence to know that I'm prepared to do it.
"Playing alongside a guy like Andrew when he gets healthy, it makes things easier on everybody. You always want to kind of have the chemistry with the other big guy. Being able to play the high-low with him is going to be good for us. As a 7-footer it's always good to play with another big guy."
It could be a while before that happens, but with the roster he's been given, Collins is prepared for it.
Wednesday's lone practice lasted about 2 hours, 35 minutes. The coaching staff opened the gym an hour before practice for anyone who wanted some extra help in going through sets and other things, and assistant coach Brian James said 10 to 12 players showed up . . . With Andrew Bynum out, James said coach Doug Collins put some new wrinkles in the offense to get the ball in Jrue Holiday's hands a bit more. "If he's going to be one of our stars and one of the elite point guards in the NBA, he's got to have the ball in his hands a little bit more, Doug feels," James said. "I thought Jrue flourished because of that, and I thought the other guards on the perimeter flourished, because they could concentrate on what they do best and not have the ball in their hands as much" . . . James praised the work of all the newcomers and pointed out the strong play of rookie Arnett Moultrie . . . The team will have a double session on Thursday.
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