Coach Johnny Davis appears to be out. General manager Brad Greenberg, architect of Davis' hiring and engineer of some disastrous free-agent signings, could be gone or reassigned. Either way, Croce will move quickly to show his seriousness in pursuing yet another new direction.
Tumultuous changes like these, only one season into the Sixers' promised revolution, are an indication of just how wrong things have gone for a team that entered training camp in October thinking it had a new lease on life.
If nothing else, the Sixers were supposed to give a preview of a better future and, in the process, convince a jaded city that, after five losing seasons, there really was something fantastic about this game after all. But a different message emerged from a franchise with a new owner, a new general manager, a new coach and a new star. That message was: We really don't know what we're doing.
Allen Iverson emerged as one of the potential superstars of a league skewing toward a Gen-X, hip-hop future, but that speaks more to his exuberance and raw ability than anything the Sixers did. If anything, the kid-gloves treatment accorded Iverson by Davis, whose disregard for disciplining his young star early helped lead to the team getting beyond the coach's control late, was a detriment.
When Davis manipulated things in a blowout loss to Washington so that Iverson could score at least 40 points for the fifth consecutive game, it created a backlash that many felt could cost Iverson the rookie-of-the-year award.
Meanwhile, players chafed under the rigors of a disappointing season, even if it was one in which, for the first time in six years, the team finally won more games than it had the season before.
Power forward Derrick Coleman, despite attempts by Croce to empower him in the off-season, clashed early with the coaching staff. He also found himself increasingly frustrated by the inconsistency of his youthful teammates.
``I've seen a lot of games where Coleman was going good for three quarters and then didn't touch the ball that much in the fourth,'' one scout said. ``It's like they forget about him, and you can see his frustration.''
By midseason, members of the coaching staff were saying the team could not win with Coleman. They recommended that his contract, which will pay him $8.1 million next season and a minimum of $13.6 million over the next two seasons, be bought out. In January, when an injured Coleman was fined after not being available to sit on the bench for a game at Detroit, the result of a misreading - or a nonreading - of team rules, the fragile tissue of his relationship with the team ripped.
``Derrick hasn't practiced with the team since the all-star break,'' one player said. ``He doesn't want to be on this team. He doesn't care anything about being on this team.''
Jerry Stackhouse, relegated to a secondary role with the emergence of Iverson, struggled early both with his outside shot and with trying to decide where he fit on the team. In February, after the Sixers had discussed trading him - a discussion that stopped at Croce's insistence - he refashioned his game. Though he was never able to raise his shooting accuracy much above 40 percent, he once again began slashing to the basket, picking up fouls by the ton. He would finish the season having gone to the foul line more than 650 times.
Stackhouse averaged more than 20 points a game, but, more important, he took bold steps over the last few weeks to become the leader the Sixers have not had since the departure of Charles Barkley. Pushed to the brink by all the losing, as well as by the focus on Iverson, he finally spoke out.
Stackhouse questioned the elevation of the individual over the team. He cast doubt on whether he, Iverson and Coleman could meld their disparate games without considerable sacrifice. Then, turning the heat under the Sixers up considerably, he said he would leave Philadelphia at the end of next season, when he will be a free agent, rather than play for a perennial loser.
It was a considerably different kind of statement from the one Stackhouse had made a little earlier, when he said he would like to stay in Philadelphia and hoped the Sixers would try to renegotiate his contract in the off-season.
All in all, is this a team winning a revolution?
``It looks like you would know better than to put all this inexperience into one team and then try to send it through an NBA season,'' said one player, who asked that his name not be used. ``What did they expect? Anyone with any experience in this league could have told them what was going to happen.''
In fact, several people with experience did predict what would happen, but Croce, trusting in his vaunted luck and in a gut instinct that had served him well, did not listen. In retrospect, the blame can be traced right through the organization.
If the players did not perform to expectations on a team whose chemistry often looked like mad science, the blame must rest with Davis. Saddled with the twin responsibilities of developing the young players while winning games, Davis accomplished neither. He consistently failed to motivate Iverson and Stackhouse with the one thing they valued that he controlled - the ability to give them or withhold playing time.
``If Scott [Williams] makes a mistake, he's out,'' one player said. ``If Doug [Overton] or [Rex] Walters make mistakes, they're out. Stackhouse and Iverson make mistake after mistake and nothing - not one thing - happens.''
If Davis was a failure, the blame must be laid at Greenberg's feet. It was Greenberg, who had worked with him in Portland, who hired a head coach who had never even been a lead assistant and who proved unprepared.
Davis and Greenberg grew apart during the season. By season's end, the bitterness Davis felt toward Greenberg was deep. Davis thought Greenberg was too wedded to the players he had scouted and signed, sticking with them long after their play had proved them suspect. Requests from the coaching staff to Greenberg for different players, for trades, fell mostly on deaf ears.
At one point in February, with the team's record spiraling downward, Greenberg responded to a question about how Davis could get more out of the players by saying: ``He has to coach them better.''
When February's trading deadline came and went with Greenberg standing pat, a sense of inevitability swept through the coaching staff and the locker room.
``It was obvious by then that things weren't going to change,'' one coach said. ``They would have fired us all then if they hadn't been too cheap.''
But if Greenberg is to blame for Davis, then Croce is to blame for Greenberg.
Croce entered the season admitting to having no knowledge of the NBA. His subsequent moves proved how right he was. While he fine-tuned lots of things - from the selection of food at the concession stands to halftime entertainment - the team, which he had promised to keep his hands off until season's end, was imploding before him.
Croce now says he has had a crash course in the NBA. Odds are, he will never again allow things to go so bad for so long.
Greenberg got his job in part by impressing Croce with his complicated statistical matrixes of players' performances, his attention to details, his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of personnel. But close scrutiny brings his judgments into question.
After his hiring, Greenberg used the admittedly paltry $5 million the Sixers had available under the salary cap to sign four players. Of those, only Mark Davis, whom Minnesota had given up on and whom the Sixers had signed for the NBA minimum, contributed significantly to the team. The performances of Greenberg's other signees varied from mediocre to terrible.
Lucious Harris, signed to a seven-year contract as a free agent though he had played only a backup role on a pathetic Dallas team, had been coached in college by Seth Greenberg, Brad's brother. Brought in as the backup shooting guard, he played in 54 games. He averaged only 5.4 points and shot a less-than-anemic 38 percent.
The brittle Don MacLean, who has been limited by injuries to 56 and 39 games the last two seasons, scored well at times off the bench. But the bench and the trainer's room are where MacLean, another free-agent signee, spent half the season. He played in only 41 games.
And it soon became clear that 35-year-old Michael Cage - brought in as a free agent to shore up the Sixers' flaccid middle, with expectations that he might start at center, as he had in 80 games for Cleveland last season - had little, if anything, left and was particularly unsuited for the up-tempo game that benefited the younger players.
Mark Davis, working for a limited salary and arriving with limited expectations, was a surprise. A raw but athletic player, he fit neatly with Iverson and Stackhouse, and he showed signs of developing into the Sixers' best on-the-ball defender.
But even Davis' signing is unlikely to mean long-term benefits for the Sixers. Under the players' collective-bargaining agreement with the league, the Sixers, who will be over the salary cap next season if they do not pull off a major trade to alter the situation, can offer him only a 20-percent pay increase. Reality says that another team, having seen what he can do, will offer him much more.
In all likelihood, salary-cap problems, with much of their cap room being gobbled up by Coleman's elephantine contract, will continue to plague the Sixers next season. The team is saddled with nine players who have guaranteed deals, ranging from Williams to Walters to Coleman. Most of the deals came courtesy of bad judgments by former owner Harold Katz.
One of the Sixers' options is to trade Clarence Weatherspoon, whose numbers fell this season as he has struggled to fit in with a revamped team. But Weatherspoon's salary will drop to just over $2 million next season - an amount that, if they unloaded it, would not help the team significantly under the cap.
Unless the situation changes, the Sixers will add to the lineup of players with guaranteed contracts only the rookie they acquire in the first round of the draft - a ``project player'' unless they are lucky enough to get Wake Forest's Tim Duncan - plus a minimum-salary player, and a player signed using the $1 million salary-cap exception under NBA rules.
``If they can't move Coleman - and I don't think they can - they've got a real problem,'' one general manager said. ``Will it scare off someone [a coach or general manager] from coming there? Not if you approach it right. But you are going to have to give something up to get the guy you want.
``I tried to tell Pat at the beginning of the season that it wasn't going to be as easy as he thought it was. He wouldn't believe me.''
He does now.
Sixers president Pat Croce might already have the new coach for his beleaguered team gift-wrapped and ready to present to a city generally disgruntled with the way things have gone with its NBA franchise. But if he doesn't, here is a laundry list of coaches who might be available to take over what may be the most daunting rebuilding job in basketball.
Chuck Daly, former Detroit Pistons and New Jersey Nets head coach
Upside: He's a certified NBA genius, with his number hanging from the rafters of the Palace at Auburn Hills. The Detroit Pistons won back-to-back championships in 1988-89 and 1989-90, and all of the players say Daly, a psychological master, was the reason. On top of that, he is the only coach who can consistently compete with Miami's Pat Riley for being best-dressed.
Downside: He's 64 years old and might not want to return to the bench, which is where the Sixers desperately need him. If you get Daly, you also have to be willing to take his posse, which includes Brendan Suhr. Daly might also want to coach for only a season before replacing himself with Suhr as he moves upstairs.
What it would take: A lot of money and, certainly, full control. It might take a piece of the team. Throw in an open account at Boyd's.
Rick Pitino, U. of Kentucky head coach
Upside: Energy. Youth. Pitino is a fiery preacher of the team concept and a ``my way or the highway'' type. He has resurrected the New York Knicks and the Kentucky Wildcats, two premier basketball franchises. Basketball is his life, and he wants a new challenge. Since arriving at Kentucky, he has added maturity and perspective without losing his zest for the game. This is the guy if you want to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Riley and Chicago's Phil Jackson.
Downside: Boston has the first shot.
What it would take: Big-time guts on the part of ownership and the ability to sell Pitino on the idea that this is where his destiny is. Getting Pitino also would demand a megadeal and ownership that is willing to hand over the keys to the franchise.
Mike Fratello, Cleveland Cavaliers head coach
Upside: He is an intense, driven coach who has won in Cleveland and Atlanta with different styles of play. His knack for shaping his system to the talent available speaks to his coaching ability. He will make his teams play defense, and there is absolutely no question on those teams who is in control.
Downside: Fratello has a year left on his contract in Cleveland, but word is that the Cavs would let him go. His Napoleon complex might not mesh well with the fragile egos of the young Sixers. His down-tempo offense in Cleveland, necessitated by the Cavs' lack of talent, has tainted his salability. He has never quite gotten over the playoff hump with either Atlanta or Cleveland.
What it would take: Fratello, a control freak, clashed in Atlanta and Cleveland with upper management. In both places, he hit the wall and found out that the coach inevitably takes a backseat to the suits upstairs. He doesn't want that to happen again. Translation: He'd demand control.
Larry Brown, Indiana Pacers head coach
Upside: He has won everywhere from San Antonio to New Jersey to Denver to UCLA. He pushes the concept of defensive hustle and unselfishness, qualities that are endangered in the NBA and nonexistent on the Sixers. Intense and intelligent, he prospered with Indiana while handling the ego of Reggie Miller.
Downside: Brown never buys. He rents. Five seasons - with both the Denver Nuggets and the University of Kansas - is his longest tenure on any bench. Come to think of it, that might not be bad.
What it would take: A buyout clause for when Brown gets here and finds out that not only is Scott Williams not Rik Smits, but that Williams won't be Smits for the four seasons he has left on his contract.
Phil Jackson, Chicago Bulls head coach
Upside: Jackson knows Zen. He has won four NBA championships and is probably going to win another one this season. His Bulls team last season won an NBA-record 72 games. He has the second-best winning percentage ever in the NBA and the best among active coaches. He has won 81 playoff games, which is exactly 81 more playoff games than the Sixers have played in the last six years.
Downside: Jackson did all the above with No. 23 at guard. Throw Michael Jordan the ball. He scores. You win.
What it will take: Convincing Jackson that he might want to reunite with former Williams, a former Bulls backup; that Jerry Stackhouse can be the next Jordan, that Allen Iverson is really a point guard, that. . . . Ah, forget it.
Other Names to Kick Around
George Karl, Seattle SuperSonics head coach; Bob Hill, former San Antonio Spurs head coach; Brian Hill, former Orlando Magic head coach; Mike Dunleavy, the Milwaukee Bucks' vice president of basketball operations; Jim Lynam, former Sixers and Washington Bullets head coach.