`Time To Deliver' Sixers Set To Launch New Season

Posted: February 04, 1999

At the beginning of the last NBA season, the 76ers, unqualified for postseason play since the beginning of the decade, were granted a short reprieve. With Allen Iverson to follow up on his rookie season, the Sixers finally had a reputable coach to oversee their basketball franchise.

But the leeway granted by the arrival of coach Larry Brown is over. As Sonny Hill, the team's executive assistant, likes to say: ``It's winning time.''

The Sixers' faithful are weary of Iverson's growing pains. They're tired of big men who don't play big. They'll become frustrated immediately if Tim Thomas continues to show that he belongs in college instead of the NBA.

And if last week's lethargic performance in the preseason opener becomes commonplace, the atmosphere at the First Union Center could get downright dangerous for players.

With the truncated, 50-game season to begin tomorrow night, the Sixers still have more questions than answers. But after watching the organization spend more than $180 million on three players, fans want exclamation points, not symbols shaped like broken light bulbs.

The players themselves sense as much.

``The city's been hoping for something special for a while,'' said Iverson, who recently signed an extension with the Sixers through the 2005 season, with an option after 2004.

``I know it. Coach knows it, and so does everyone else. We're not blind. It's what we've been talking about and thinking about for a while. It's time to deliver.''

The Sixers would like you to believe that the new delivery men - nine players are gone from last season's opening-day roster - are an improvement, a foundation for the future.

They invested six years and $50 million in free-agent center Matt Geiger; they re-signed shot-blocker extraordinaire Theo Ratliff for seven years at more than $60 million; and they made sure that if Iverson goes anywhere, it'll be because of their doing rather than his.

After last February's trading deadline passed, the Sixers' brass - and fans - were worried that Iverson might elect to go elsewhere if he didn't get the contract he wanted. Once the league-imposed lockout was resolved last month, the Sixers signed him to a six-year, $71 million deal.

Plus, the Sixers kept his backup, Eric Snow, for this season. They still have Aaron McKie, and in June they drafted guard Larry Hughes No. 8-overall out of St. Louis.

``He's special,'' Brown said of Hughes. ``There's something about the kid that tells you when the lights go on, he's going to show you some special things. The kid can play.''

What the Sixers' frontcourt will show might be their biggest problem.

Though many fans have bristled at the thought, Brown never wanted to lose Derrick Coleman. He repeatedly called Coleman one of the most complete players he had ever seen.

``That's because I believe it,'' he said. ``People will never fully understand what he meant to this team, especially inside that locker room.''

Geiger and Ratliff will have to try to minimize the impact of Coleman's departure, but that will be difficult.

Ratliff, who was fourth in the league in blocked shots (3.15 per game) last season, averaged 9.9 points. His strength is defense, along with an occasional jumper, but the Sixers will need more than that from him. And Geiger appears to bring similar attributes to the court.

Geiger, who averaged 11.3 points and 6.7 rebounds with the Charlotte Hornets last season, isn't a back-to-the-basket player. He shoots jump shots and beats opposing centers off the dribble with a quick first step, just as Ratliff does.

One difference between the two, though: Geiger is a banger.

``At this point in time, neither of them really has a post-up game,'' Brown said when reminded that Geiger backed up Vlade Divac for parts of last season.

``But that's because they've never been asked to really develop one. They've been asked to defend, rebound, and run the floor, all the things we need. Obviously, we'll need much more from them in order for us to win.''

Perhaps not if Thomas comes to play with Iverson and Hughes.

Thomas was almost nonexistent in the preseason. He was abused by Wizards rookie Randall Jackson in the opener. He was so bad that Brown benched him for nearly the entire second half, refusing even to look at him.

If Thomas continues his blase approach, free-agent pickups Harvey Grant and George Lynch would be more than willing to replace him. But they combined to average 10.1 points a game last season, and were brought in primarily for spot minutes and off-court leadership.

The brunt of the work is supposed to be reserved for Thomas.

``I know that a lot is riding on me,'' said Thomas, who would be a junior at Villanova if he hadn't left for the 1997 NBA Draft. ``If I hit my jump shots, play some defense, and just pay attention to doing what Coach tells me to do, it opens up things for everybody else.

``Theo and Matt can get loose down low. Allen can have two people to throw the ball outside to, instead of just Larry. And it can really cause problems for a lot of teams. I'm aware of my role.''

There's never been a Sixer who said otherwise.

Yet the team is three years removed from an 18-64 season and two years removed from a 22-60 debacle. They have compiled a 53-111 record with Iverson on the roster.

Although they would like to, they can't get rid of Scott Williams, who is guaranteed $14.25 million through the 2001 season. And they don't expect more than 10 to 15 minutes a game from reserve center Benoit Benjamin.

``I've tried to tell anyone that would listen that I'm expecting a playoff berth,'' Sixers president Pat Croce said. ``Hoping for it and expecting it are two different things. If you don't expect it, how can you expect to achieve it?''

With last month's transactions, the Sixers did Croce one better: They paid for it.

Will it get them a .500 record? A playoff berth for the first time since 1991? Decency?

Perhaps Iverson spoke for the Sixers when he said: ``It's anyone's guess right now.''

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