By Spike Eskin

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Predicting how a team will perform, which happens to feature nine new players, is a difficult task. When you consider that, by default, it includes a prediction regarding development of two young players at key positions, it makes it even more difficult. Finally, when you consider that the best player on the team hasn’t practiced a lick, hasn’t played a game, and whose return date is in question, it makes it … sort of impossible.

That said, here we are.

The Sixers and Doug Collins promised changes after the 2011-12 season ended, saying they wouldn’t stand pat based on an unexpected playoff run. They delivered on those changes.

Gone are the team’s best player and perimeter defender in Andre Iguodala, the team’s highest paid player and best post defender in Elton Brand, and the team’s leading scorer and sixth man in Lou Williams, among others.

LISTEN: KYW’s Matt Leon previews the Sixers season with Bob Cooney of the Daily News.

New to the team are three deadly three-point shooters in Dorell Wright, Nick Young (Swaggy P), and Jason Richardson. New to the team is perennial punchline but solid post defender Kwame Brown. New to the team are an undrafted rookie who will most certainly contribute in Maalik Wayns, and a first round pick who may not get a ton of run in Arnett Moultrie.

And oh, by the way, they added Andrew Bynum, the second best center in the league. Rumor has it, he’ll play this season.

So what can we expect from this year’s Sixers? Let’s break it down.

Bynum’s Knees, Hope For The Best

Anyone who predicts a particular return date for Andrew Bynum is guessing. A bone bruise can take anywhere from a week to four months to heal. There’s just no way of knowing when Bynum will be without pain.

Contrary to certain reports (hi Dad), I don’t believe there’s some kind of grand coverup about Bynum. I also don’t believe that he was injured in a way they weren’t aware of when the trade happened. The Sixers, in my opinion, could have probably handled this situation better publicly, but that’s a different story.

They traded for Bynum, he got a bone bruise, it’s taking longer than they’d like for it to heal. That’s about it. It’s not optimal, but it’s not the end of the world.

So for the purposes of this preview, I’m going to assume he’s healed up and playing by the end of November/start of December.

We’ll See Three Different Sixers Teams

Seems like we’ll see three different versions of the Sixers this year. They are:

The Sixers without Bynum

The Sixers immediately after they add Bynum

The Sixers with Bynum fully integrated.

The difficulty here is that offensively, this will be a much different team without Bynum than with him. Without Bynum the team will play fast, and do their best to use their speed and athleticism to their advantage. Without Bynum, there is almost no low post threat at all.

With Bynum, the team will need to learn to use the low post as their first option, instead of their last. That’s a big difference, and one that will take some getting used to. I could see a scenario in which the Sixers start off strong, and actually take a small step back once Bynum arrives and they try to figure things out.

But do not fool yourself, to be a serious contender in the Eastern Conference (no one’s beating the Heat, but let’s pretend they want to be on that level just below them), they need Andrew Bynum to play, play a lot, and play very well.

Consider that without Bynum, when you compare the Sixers to, for instance, the Brooklyn Nets, the Sixers do not have the better player at any starting position. They are not a four or five seed without Bynum as some have suggested. Not close.

The Sixers can be fun to watch without Bynum, play well and hang in there, but to truly be a good team, this season is all about the big guy.

Remember as well, that the way the Orlando Magic found themselves in the finals was with a dominant big man and three point shooters. It’s a recipe that’s worked.

This Is Jrue Holiday’s Big Chance, And He’ll Grab It

The problem with judging how Jrue Holiday played the point guard position last season, is that he wasn’t really playing point guard for much of the season. He was listed at point guard, but that means just about as much as Tim Duncan being listed at power forward.

READ: Jrue Holiday excited to see Iguodala, excited to play point guard

If Jrue Holiday is going to the point guard I believe he can be, this is his best chance to do that. He’s got scorers around him, and a dominant big man. He’s got other players on the team who do not need to handle the ball to be effective. He’ll also take another step toward being one of the best on-ball defenders at his position in the league.

This will be the second year I predict it, but I do think Jrue Holiday makes a significant leap this season. I don’t think that puts him in the Chris Paul/Derek Rose/Rajon Rondo category, but I think he cements himself into the category just below that.

This Is Evan Turner’s Big Chance, And He Won’t Grab It

Evan Turner can be a solid rotation player for an NBA team. The problem with Turner is the difference between who believes he is, and who he actually is.

Evan Turner, optimally, is the third guard on the Sixers, and the first of the bench. The guy who can play a little point guard,  a little shooting guard, and and a little small forward if he’s needed. It still seems though that in Evan Turner’s mind, he’s a starter, and the team is best when the ball is in his hands.

Maybe Evan Turner is the best when the ball is in his hands, but that does not make for a good enough NBA team, and does not make the best Sixers team.

Evan Turner is pretty good at some things, but only really elite at one (rebounding). He’ll have trouble guarding small forwards. His handle isn’t really good enough for extended point guard minutes, and he doesn’t do much of anything well enough offensively to be a shooting guard.

Let it be known that I hope I am dead wrong.

Because of this…

Dorell Wright Will Be Starting At Small Forward By Game #20

Because aside from Evan Turner’s psyche, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be. Especially when Andrew Bynum gets back, and the Sixers will want to surround him with as many shooters as possible.

I also think Wright will be a guy the Sixers will want to hold on to past this season.

Swaggy P and Bynum Will Have The Most Powerful Afro Combo In The League

This is inarguable.

Nick Young’s Going To Have A Career Year

One of Doug Collins’ strengths it seems is to figure out what a player is best and, and getting him to buy into doing it. Sometimes it’s begrudgingly, like in the case of Andre Iguodala, but there’s no debating that Iguodala, Lou Williams, and Spencer Hawes were all put in position to be the best player they could be.

Nick Young’s on a one-year contract, and has plenty of critics. If he listens to Collins, he can transform himself from “guy who scores but takes tons of terrible shots and never passes,” to “deadly spot up shooter.”

If I’m Nick Young, the mission is listen to Collins, get better, make more money.

Wins And Playoff Seeding Are Nice, But They’re Not Everything

The Sixers could finish anywhere from second in the Eastern Conference to seventh, and that’s ok. The truth is that the difference in wins between second and seventh may not be that many.

The mission this year is to see if this is a core that with some tinkering, development and an addition here and there could become a championship contender when Lebron James decides to sign with the Lakers in a couple of years.

This season is about Drew and Jrue, and don’t you forget it.

The Knicks Won’t Be Very Good

Not too sure why we should think anything other than this.

The Sixers Won’t Have A Mascot This Season

When you think too long about a mascot, everything seems ridiculous. I mean think of any mascot in any sport, and say out loud what it is. Even the Phanatic seems ridiculous. Nothing can ever live up to the vote, or the billing. Long live the moose.

Thaddeus Young Will Finally Settle On Being A Power Forward

As recently as during the preseason, Thaddeus Young was talking about being a small forward. That worried me. Small forwards can shoot three pointers and handle the ball, and neither one of those are things that Young excels at.

LISTEN: Matt Leon previews the season with Thaddeus Young

Luckily, Young wasn’t putting his eggs just in the small forward basket. He came to camp with twenty pounds of extra muscle, allowing him to play extended minutes at power forward. The addition of Bynum allows for more of this as well.

Thaddeus Young’s biggest chance at success in the future is being a power forward who has a first step that other power forwards can’t guard, and a reliable 15-17 foot jump shot.

Finally, The Prediction

I’ll say that the Sixers will win 46 games, and that will be good for fourth or fifth in the Eastern Conference. Assuming the Drew and Jrue experiment is a success, it doesn’t matter too much to me if they’ve got 42 wins or 50 (of course more wins is always better, but you get it).

I’d say their ceiling is the Eastern Conference Finals, if the playoff matchups line up the right way. Their reasonable bottom, assuming Bynum does play 60+ games this year, is 41 or 42 wins and a first round exit if the playoff matchup is not favorable.

If Bynum plays fewer than 50 games this season, all bets are off.

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