But no developments have so ravaged this once-proud organization as have the events of June 17, 1986 - the NBA draft day that year.
Extra . . . Extra. Read all about it. Sixers Send Shock Waves Through the NBA. Swap Moses Malone and Terry Catledge to Washington for Jeff Ruland, Cliff Robinson and two first-round draft picks . . . Extra . . . Extra.
Extra . . . Extra. Read all about it. Wheeling, Dealing Sixers Make It a Daily Double. Trade the First Pick in the Draft to Cleveland for Roy Hinson. Extra . . . Extra.
Ruland and Robinson and two No. 1s for Malone and Catledge.
Hinson for the first pick in the draft.
Those two bold trades 22 months ago were supposed to fortify the Sixers and keep them in the championship hunt for years to come. Instead, they have brought the franchise to its knees and caused damage that could take years to undo.
Two of the three players acquired in those deals, Ruland and Hinson, are gone. Ruland played just five games for the Sixers before an arthritic knee forced him to retire last June at the age of 28. Hinson was a major disappointment and was traded to the New Jersey Nets last February along with Tim McCormick for Mike Gminski and Ben Coleman.
Only Robinson remains with the club. And the Sixers are having difficulty getting their money's worth out of him. The 6-9 forward missed 27 games last season because of injuries (ankle and eye) and has missed 19 more this season (back and ankle).
To make matters worse, the college player the Sixers so willingly shunned for Hinson - center Brad Daugherty, of the University of North Carolina - has developed into an outstanding player for Cleveland.
"Everyone says now, 'How could they have done that?' " said Jack McMahon, the former Sixers player personnel director who now works for the Golden State Warriors. "Well, all I can say is, it looked like a pretty good idea to me.
"At that particular moment, it seemed like the right thing to do."
Why did they do it? Why was a basketball team that had managed to win 54 games and come within a 15-foot Julius Erving jump shot of the Eastern Conference finals the previous season so willing to gamble with its future?
Why were the Sixers so determined to get rid of Moses Malone and so willing to take a chance on Ruland's knee? Why were they so enamored of Roy Hinson and why couldn't he fit in with them? And how could they have been so wrong about Daugherty?
To attempt to answer those and other questions, it is necessary to retrace the circumstances leading to June 17, 1986.
"You have to go back to the spring of '86 and remember what the climate was," said Pat Williams, former Sixers general manager and presently the president of the expansion Orlando Magic. "Moses had missed 6 to 8 weeks with the eye injury (fractured orbital bone). The team had finished very well, coming within one shot of making the (conference) finals. You have a coach (Matty Guokas) who just doesn't want to coach the way you have to with Moses.
"So there are all the pieces. You've won the lottery (for the No. 1 pick in the draft). You've almost gotten to the finals in the East. What do you do
from there? And you have a 31-year-old center who is making $2 million and your coach doesn't want to coach him. Those are the elements.
"And say what you want about Daugherty, but nobody was excited about the guy. Now he's become an all-star. But nobody would've guessed this kid would've become an all-star player in his second year. There were lots of questions about him.
"So, the night before the draft, you can get an established pro forward (Hinson) plus $800,000 for the pick. Does it make sense? Yeah, then it did. You're getting a proven 25-year-old established pro and a ton of money. You'd have to say that wasn't a bad deal."
The impetus for everything that happened on June 17 was Moses Malone. In the weeks preceding the '86 draft, the powers in the organization had come to the conclusion that Malone had outlived his usefulness in Philadelphia.
There was the matter of his age: He was 31 years old with 11 professional seasons in his rear-view mirror and the Sixers were not sure how many more miles his legs had left.
There was the matter of his mouth: Malone had been openly critical of the organization during the previous season, particularly of Guokas and Sixers owner Harold Katz.
There was the matter of his salary: Malone had two years left on a contract that earned him more than $2.1 million annually, and he already had approached Katz regarding an extension.
And there was the matter of his style of play: Malone was Bach; Guokas wanted Elvis. The coach wanted a center who could play up-tempo basketball, one who could run the floor and who could grab a rebound and fling a halfcourt outlet pass before his feet hit the ground. Malone was not that kind of center. Jeff Ruland was.
"It's a tough job coaching someone you're not comfortable coaching," McMahon said. "And Matty clearly wasn't comfortable coaching Moses."
So that is the dilemma that faced the Sixers. They were uncertain they wanted Moses; they were uncertain they wanted the first-round pick, which they had obtained seven years earlier from the Los Angeles Clippers for Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant.
There seemed to be little doubt among NBA personnel people that the top player in the '86 draft was Daugherty. The 7-footer averaged 20 points a game as a senior and finished his college career as the Tar Heels' seventh all-time leading scorer and fourth all-time leading rebounder.
"He was the first player in 40 years that I listed first at two positions," said Marty Blake, the NBA scouting director. "There was absolutely no question that Brad Daugherty was going to be a helluva player."
But the Sixers were not as convinced as Blake that Daugherty was a can't-miss NBA commodity, particularly in an up-tempo offense.
"Daugherty leads the league in turnovers at the center position," Katz said. "Nobody can say he's a runner. And if we were going to have Ruland or even if we were going to still have Moses, Daugherty would have been a tough guy to fit in.
"Because we visualized him as what he turned out to be - a center. He's a down-low player who can pass from up top. But he's not a forward who can drive to the hole and do those things and play guys on the wing, which you have to do."
As the draft approached, the Sixers called around the league to try to determine the market value of both Malone and the No. 1 pick.
"We learned two things," Williams said. "We learned there was not a great deal of interest in the pick. No one was absolutely salivating over any one particular college player, not enough to give up something of great significance.
"And we learned that there wasn't a great deal of interest in Moses. Only two clubs really seemed interested in him - Washington and Detroit. Detroit was talking (Bill) Laimbeer, (Kelly) Tripucka, Vinnie Johnson. But they wanted the No. 1 pick, too. They wanted Moses and the No. 1. We just didn't like it. There were no real Tripucka fans in our camp. So now, it's Laimbeer and Vinnie for Moses and the No. 1. No, no. It just didn't hang right.
"The thinking was a healthy Ruland was the same type (of center) as Laimbeer. And you got Cliff Robinson. And you're going to pick up Hinson. It sounded great. The morning of the draft, that was a good-looking team."
As late as two days before the draft, it looked as if the Sixers would retain the No. 1 pick. None of the offers they had gotten for it had excited them. Until Eddie Gregory called.
Gregory, then an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers and an old friend of McMahon's, telephoned McMahon the Sunday before the draft and asked him if the Sixers might have any interest in swapping the pick for Hinson.
The offer caught the Sixers slightly off guard. First of all, the Cavs seemed unlikely candidates to swing a major deal since they were without both a coach and a general manager at the time. Secondly, Hinson was considered one of the up-and-coming forwards in the game and the Sixers were surprised the Cavaliers would be willing to part with him.
The man behind the deal was someone who was not even working for the Cavaliers yet - Wayne Embry.
Embry was named the club's vice president and general manager three days after the draft, but he had tentatively accepted the job a week earlier. He knew the Sixers were shopping the No. 1 pick and strongly suggested to Cavs owners George and Gordon Gund that they go after it.
"I advised them that if they had an opportunity to make a deal for the pick, make it," Embry said. "And I told them that if they got it, draft Daugherty.
"Roy Hinson was a good player. But he's a small forward. I felt that if you're going to build a team, you need a center. And I felt that Brad was going to be a great one."
The next day, with the draft less than 24 hours away, McMahon relayed Gregory's message to Katz, Guokas and Williams. They were, in a word, ecstatic.
"When I first heard that Cleveland had called us and offered Hinson," Katz said, "I thought it was a joke. Hinson was coming off a great, great year. He had to be rated one of the top three or four power forwards in the league. He was just 25. He had great stats.
"The excitement in that room about Roy Hinson being available was shared by everyone. There were statements - I'm not going to stay by whom - that it was a no-brainer . . . Let's not even think about it. Let's do it. But we did think about it. We made some phone calls. And everything we heard (about Hinson) was all positive."
Throughout the morning and afternoon, the Sixers' officials analyzed. By nightfall, they had to decide what to do. The only two serious bidders for Malone had been Washington and Detroit, and Detroit still was asking for both Moses and the No. 1 pick. So much for Detroit.
The Bullets' offer of Ruland and Robinson was very appealing, even though Ruland had missed a total of 97 games the previous two seasons with knee, shoulder, ankle and back problems. Ruland had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his knee less than three months earlier, and had come back to play very well against the Sixers in the playoffs.
"It wasn't a hard sell," Katz said. "Ruland was probably the best running center in the league. He was a huge man who played like a guard. With him, we could pressure the ball and run up the court and do all the things we wanted to do to get (Maurice) Cheeks more in the game and (Charles) Barkley more in the game."
The only appetizing offer for the No. 1 pick had been Hinson. So, Katz polled his six advisers: Guokas, Williams, McMahon, assistant general manager John Nash and assistant coaches Jimmy Lynam and John Gabriel. All six told him to go for it, to do both deals. A weary Katz went in to his office to take a nap and think it over.
"When he came out," McMahon recalled, "he said, 'Let's do it.' "
Williams got on the phone and made the deal with the Bullets: Malone, Catledge, a No. 1 pick in the 1986 (21st overall) draft and the lesser of the two first-round picks the Sixers held in the 1988 draft for Ruland and Robinson.
Then Williams called the Cavaliers and said the Sixers would swap the No. 1 pick for Hinson if Cleveland would throw in $1 million in cash.
"We finally settled on $800,000," Williams said. "I remember going back in and telling our group we had gotten that and Harold said, 'Why didn't you get a million?' The deal was to make it even up and I get them to kick in $800,000, and he asks why I didn't get a million. That's Harold."
The Sixers had no reservations about the Hinson deal. In their minds, it came down to this simple fact: They were getting a proven player (Hinson) for an unproven one (Daugherty). And their only hesitancy about making the deal with Washington was Ruland's health. But Williams got the Bullets to agree to give both sides 14 days to examine their new players.
"The last thing I did," said Williams, who left the day after the draft for Orlando, "was to put into the deal that all players must pass physicals. We had two weeks to check him out.
"That's the crux of the story, the meat of the whole issue. If indeed Ruland was looked at and (the team) was told, 'This is not good. We do not like what we see,' that deal could have been cancelled. And should have been."
Dr. Michael Clancy, the Sixers' orthopedic surgeon, did not like what he saw. He examined Ruland's knee, examined the X-rays, and told Katz he had serious doubts about Ruland's career expectancy.
But Katz was reluctant to turn back. Malone had ripped both Katz and Guokas after the trade, so bringing Moses back to Philadelphia would have been very uncomfortable. Plus, with Hinson already on board, it would have put the Sixers in a precarious situation as far as the salary cap was concerned.
Katz also was reluctant to turn back because no one else seemed to agree with Clancy. Dr. Kenneth DeHaven, the Rochester, N.Y., orthopedic specialist who had performed arthroscopic surgery on Ruland's knee in late March, told the Sixers the center's knee was fine. Katz then brought in another local orthopedic man, Dr. Hank DeVincent, of Holy Redeemer Hospital in Huntingdon Valley, to look at the knee. DeVincent told Katz the knee looked fine.
"They just wanted me to examine his knee and substantiate the fact that he could undertake the rigors of the NBA," DeVincent recalled. "I thought, that with a strong rehabilitation program, he would be able to."
But Ruland was not able. Degenerative arthritis already had ravaged Ruland's knee to a degree that he could not tolerate the pounding of the NBA. One Sixers source said DeHaven should have recognized that when he operated on Ruland.
"He's the operating surgeon," said the source. "He wants to look good. He wants Jeff Ruland to play. In a situation like that, you have to go with the guy who has looked at it, operated on it. If anybody should know, he should."
Said Katz: "DeHaven told us that Ruland should have no more problems than any basketball player that size who has played as long as he has. DeVincent visited with Jeff and cleared him. There was no one who could say, 'Hey, this knee is not going to hold up.'
"Jeff came to Philadelphia and told us he never had felt better in his entire career. He had been on a weightlifting program. He looked sensational. Pat Croce, who I have great confidence in, also examined him. Pat told us that the strength in Ruland's so-called bad knee was as strong as the other one."
Ruland played just two regular-season games for the Sixers before the knee began to ache. DeHaven performed another arthroscope on Ruland in mid- November. Ruland came back three months later and gave it one more try. But after three games, the knee flared again.
It was over. Ruland sat out the rest of the reason, and then announced his retirement.
His career with the Sixers: 5 games, 47 points, 28 rebounds.
The "no-brainer" deal for Hinson did not turn out much better than the one for Ruland. Hinson had averaged just under 20 points a game with Cleveland the season before and was an exceptional shot-blocker. The Sixers thought he would be the perfect frontcourt complement to Ruland and Charles Barkley.
But Hinson, who is playing well with the Nets, was unable to fit in the Sixers' system. He was unable to adapt his game to an offense that revolves around Charles Barkley.
The Sixers claim Hinson was not assertive enough. "A great player has to fit in with a team concept," Katz said. "It was up to Roy Hinson to figure out a way to play with Charles. Cliff (Robinson) has had no problem doing it."
Hinson believes that is because he and Robinson are entirely different players.
"Cliff's an outside shooter," Hinson said. "Charles, even though he's technically a small forward, does most of his stuff inside. That's pretty much where I operate. As a result, someone had to suffer. They would always tell me, 'Cut to the basket, cut to the basket.' But that wasn't my game.
"I averaged 14 points a game my first year there. I figured, well, we've got Doc here and Charles blossoming into a superstar. And you have Maurice and Andrew - both good, quality players. I figured I just wasn't getting the amount of shots.
"This year, with Doc gone, they told me they expected me to score a little more. I figured this was when Roy Hinson was going to revert back to the player he used to be. But I ended up shooting even fewer shots and seeing the ball even less."
As Hinson struggled in Philadelphia, Brad Daugherty became a star in Cleveland. As a rookie last year, Daugherty averaged 15.7 points a game. This year, he is averaging 18.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game and was selected to the Eastern Conference all-star team. Last week, he poured in a career-high 44 points to lead the Cavs to a 120-109 victory over Boston.
Embry said he never doubted Daugherty's NBA potential. "I had very high regard for him in college," the Cavs' GM said. "Given his age (Daugherty was just 20 when he was drafted) and what we knew about his work ethic, I felt he was going to only get better.
"I guess the style of game they play down at North Carolina may have misled some people. They don't play the power game, so to speak. But I knew he was going to be an outstanding NBA player. To tell you the truth, I was a little bit surprised when I found out Philadelphia was willing to trade the pick. But I'm glad they were."
"The whole design," Pat Williams recalled, "was to eliminate the fallout period and stay strong."
"On paper, it looked awfully good," Williams continued. "In reality, it turned out to be a disaster."