Spirit of 76ers
After the new G.M. rattles some cages and kicks up the tempo, left-for-dead Philly jumps back into the playoff race
THE SIXERS' blueprint for success: Trade the franchise player, draft a college freshman with questionable upside, aggravate the cornerstone with an underwhelming contract offer, start the season with a lame-duck coach, fire the general manager, change the style of play at midseason, deal the best outside threat for cap space ... then watch it all come together in time for a stretch run.
What, you didn't think Philadelphia planned all this?
The resurgent Sixers (33--34 through Sunday) have been one of the league's hottest teams since the All-Star break. Philly started 5--12 in its first November since 1995 without Allen Iverson but entered this week having won 15 of its last 19 (including victories over the Suns, Pistons and Spurs), vaulting from 14th in the Eastern Conference to seventh.
The turnaround can be traced to Dec. 4, when the Sixers hired former Nets G.M. Ed Stefanski to replace the deposed Billy King. One of Stefanski's first moves was to meet with coach Maurice Cheeks to discuss the team's style of play. "I thought we could score some points if we played at a faster pace," says Stefanski. "Mo was all for it. He was very comfortable with that style."
So was the team. After averaging 93.1 points over the first 38 games, Philadelphia broke loose for 100.4 points per outing over the next 28. "[The Sixers] put a lot of pressure on you to take good shots because they test your transition defense on every miss," says Pacers assistant coach Lester Conner. "Everyone they put out there can go end to end, and they have a great decision maker in [point guard] Andre Miller."
Still, on Dec. 29, when the Sixers traded swingman Kyle Korver (and the remaining two years on his contract) to the Jazz for Gordon Giricek (and the two months left on his), it appeared their focus was on next season. That notion was furthered when Stefanski pushed to get extra minutes for the younger players, including guard Louis Williams, swingman Rodney Carney and first-round pick Thaddeus Young from Georgia Tech. The second-youngest player in the league, Young, 19, was a nonfactor the first two months of the season. But given more of an opportunity, the 6'8" 220-pounder thrived, using his freakish athleticism and soft touch around the rim to average 11.2 points and 5.4 rebounds since Feb. 1 as a part-time starter.
The veterans caught fire as well with Miller bumping his averages to 17.0 points and 6.6 assists at week's end, guard Willie Green scoring a career-high 12.9 points per game, center Samuel Dalembert averaging 10.7 points and 10.1 rebounds, and forward Andre Iguodala becoming one of two players in the league to get 19 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals a game. (Caron Butler of the Wizards is the other.) "They understood we wanted to play the young guys," says Stefanski, "and they accepted it and made it work."
Philly's improbable success may cause Stefanski to revisit his long-term rebuilding plan. Already, last month he rewarded Cheeks with a one-year contract extension through next season. Assuming that Iguodala, who turned down a five-year, $57 million deal in the off-season, is re-signed, the Sixers will still have about $10 million in cap space to acquire a low-post presence through free agency or a trade. "We have options," says Stefanski, "and we're playing well. Those are good things."
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On the Rockets' 22-game winning streak, the second longest in league history:
"What Houston has done has been phenomenal. Without Yao Ming the Rockets have had to rely on ball movement, motion and screens to get open looks—but they are getting them. That offense is running so crisply it's scary. Pressure isn't being put on Tracy McGrady (right) either; in the first half of Sunday's win over the Lakers, he didn't score a point and Houston had a 15-point lead. I can see the Rockets going into a shooting funk eventually, and points are going to be tough to come by. But the way they play defense, even if they only score 85 points, they can still win games."
JESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (YOUNG)
MAD DASH YOUNG (21) and Iguodala (inset) sparked the Sixers to 15 wins in 19 games.
LISA BLUMENFELD/GETTY IMAGES (IGUODALA)
[See caption above]
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (MCGRADY)