Starting Over - Again Has Larry Brown Fixed The Sixers?

Posted: October 30, 1997

As the season ticked away, as each game became another nightmare to forget, the Sixers and everyone affiliated with them began to ponder an obvious question:

How on earth can we fix this mess?

Step one was hiring Larry Brown as coach. Step two was dismantling a roster full of overrated and overpriced talent. Step three arrives tomorrow night when the regular season begins.

``That's when we begin to show the city of Philadelphia that we have moved in the right direction,'' said Brown, ``that we have made every effort to make things better . . . that losing is not an option of ours and will never be acceptable.''

So, here comes the revolution - a year later than promised.

Sixers president Pat Croce promised one a year ago. The rookie president brought in a rookie coach (Johnny Davis) and a rookie general manager (Brad Greenberg). The result was one of the most horrific seasons in franchise history: one that ended 22-60, and was cushioned only by an 18-64 finish the year before.

To Croce's credit, he didn't stand pat. He corrected many of his most obvious mistakes, and a change for the better has occurred.

Gone are Don MacLean, Lucious Harris and the aging Michael Cage, along with their long-term, guaranteed contracts. Replacing them are the likes of Jim Jackson, Eric Montross and rookies Tim Thomas and Anthony Parker, both first-round draft picks.

But potential problems lurk not far below the surface.

Allen Iverson, last season's rookie of the year, is in position to negotiate a new contract next summer. So are Mark Davis and Doug Overton, both looking to cash in after signing for the league's veteran minimum ($372,500) last summer.

You can also add Jerry Stackhouse, Jackson and Clarence Weatherspoon to the Sixers' list of free agents next summer, along with Derrick Coleman, unless the Sixers have a change of heart and elect to pay his $13 million salary for next season.

If all or most of those players decide to sign elsewhere, the Sixers will be back where they started when Brown was hired as coach and head of basketball operations.

Still, for the time being at least, the Sixers' primary goal has been addressed.

``We've got more talent on this roster than last year,'' said Iverson, the Sixers' leading scorer (23.5 points per game) last season. ``Now I've got more confidence in my teammates. I really believe we can win some games. It's just a matter of putting all the pieces together. But at least they're here.''

The question is, how will Brown do it?

How will he take Montross, absent offensively (5.7 ppg.) for the last two seasons, and make him an option opposing teams will respect?

How long will it be before Brown tangles with Iverson, who will want to shoot more as losses mount?

``So far, it hasn't been a problem,'' Brown said. ``Allen has been great and very coachable. He's so much better than I thought he was.''

Brown said the same thing about Coleman, but that came after an acrimonious summer in which both parties ended up sparring verbally in training camp.

Since then, it's been heaven. The two smile, pat each other on the back and have nothing but kind words to say to each other. Evidently, both recognize that they need each other.

Brown knows Coleman is good for 18 points and 10 rebounds - on a bad night. And Coleman, due $8 million this season, knows he needs a productive year to be in good bargaining position if, as expected, he becomes a free agent next summer.

``It's all about winning basketball games,'' Coleman said. ``Losing is what bothers me, like it would anyone. You have to understand, I've been in this league eight years. We struggled in New Jersey, then I came here to this situation.

``Anytime any of us have an opportunity to improve our lives, we'll do it. I wanted to play for a winner. I never said I didn't want to play for Larry Brown. I'm here. I'm ready to bust my butt and produce for this team. And I think Larry Brown is a hell of a coach. His record speaks for itself.''

The Sixers are hoping Brown's success with the Indiana Pacers - a .565 winning percentage and two appearances in the Eastern Conference finals - will continue in Philadelphia.

The Sixers have averaged more than 50 losses per season this decade. Until this season, the talent level seemed to be in a steady state of decline. And by last season, it was clear that Sixers fans had seen enough.

Applauding the cheerleaders instead of the team was getting old.

``A change has definitely taken place,'' Brown said. ``I think we have a lot of talent in here, and we filled some tremendous holes. It's my job to get them to play together, which won't be easy if everyone has their own agenda. Hopefully, that won't be the case.''

But at the moment, the potential is there for the unsettled contract situation to detract from team unity.

Weatherspoon entered training camp saying he felt unappreciated by the Sixers' new brass. He is looking to get paid more than the $2.8 million he's getting this season.

Then there are Stackhouse and Jackson.

They both can play shooting guard or small forward. Both are consummate professionals who represent the Sixers well on and off the court. And both are looking to get paid.

Jackson, making $4.6 million this season, is a five-year veteran looking for a five- or six-year contract in excess of $50 million. Considering Stackhouse's potential and the dollars his fellow 1995 rookies (Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett) made this summer, he probably will be looking for a lot more himself. He will make $2.6 million this season.

That became clear when the Sixers didn't make an offer to re-sign Stackhouse this summer, and he didn't push them. Both apparently are willing to take their chances and see how things develop.

The Sixers won't need Jackson, Thomas and Stackhouse next season. With Thomas already exceeding expectations, all three are barely needed now.

``I'm paying no attention to [the Stackhouse comparisons] at all,'' said Jackson, who Brown said hasn't meshed well with Stackhouse. ``Stack is my teammate. My concentration is on winning basketball games. I can't afford to think about anything else.''

Added Brown: ``All I know is that we've gone 40-124 in the past two seasons with the guys we had. We can lose with anybody. The question is: `Who can we win with?' ''

Those answers begin to emerge tomorrow night at the CoreStates Center against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Then we'll learn whether Brown has what it takes to make the Sixers go.

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