Sixers seem to be following example of Eagles, Phillies

Andre Iguodala will make his first appearance in the All-Star Game.
Andre Iguodala will make his first appearance in the All-Star Game. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: February 17, 2012

THE SIXERS are following a familiar Philadelphia formula.

When the Eagles turned their corner in 2000, coach Andy Reid found himself marshaling emerging talent the likes of which the franchise never had known. As the powerhouse Cowboys and Redskins faded, the Eagles made the playoffs nine of the past 12 seasons, with five trips to the NFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl appearance - easily, the best stretch in franchise history.

When the Phillies turned their corner in 2007, manager Charlie Manuel and general manager Pat Gillick built around Ryan Howard and a substantial supporting cast en route to five straight division titles.

Now, the Sixers find themselves in a similar spot. They entertain the world champion Mavericks tonight perched atop the Atlantic Division, a thriving young garden of talent in a decaying Eastern Conference.

"The premise is exactly what happened with us," said Eagles president Joe Banner. "We brought in a new coach. Changed the culture. Had young players to build around. It appears to have happened with the other two teams as well."

"And they're getting better as they go along," observed Manuel, a prep basketball star who played professional baseball solely for the money. "I can't wait to see them get in the playoffs this year and see how far they can go."

Doug Collins, the coach, and team president Rod Thorn took the team on a surprise, if short, playoff excursion after last season, their first with the team.

With wins this season over the Lakers, Bulls, Hawks and Magic, the Sixers are the new "It" team in town.

Their best player, Andre Iguodala, will play in his first All-Star Game next weekend. His selfless play and ferocious defense make him a darling of Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Their most dangerous offensive weapons, Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young, come off the bench.

Their most promising talents, guards Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner, might just be scratching the surface of their potential.

Assistant general manager Tony DiLeo, a lifelong Philadelphia-area guy who has worked for the Sixers for 20 years, helped build this emerging power. DiLeo can hardly contain his excitement.

"We can see the improvement from the beginning of last year, through the playoffs and we picked up right from that point this year," he said. "If we continue to improve, we'll be in a good position come playoff time."

Which, considering the context of the comparisons, is asking a lot.

After the 2000 season, when they won one playoff game, the Eagles in 2001 progressed to the NFC Championship Game.

After the 2007 season, when they lost in the first round, the Phillies in 2008 won the World Series.

Can the Sixers, a first-round victim of the Heat last season, realistically expect to roll past LeBron James and Miami? Dwight Howard and the Magic? Derrick Rose and the Bulls?

Maybe not right now, DiLeo admitted:

"I definitely see how we're turning the corner. Have we turned it all the way? No. But we are definitely turning the corner."

What defined those Eagles and Phillies teams is a star around which to build.

After the 2000 season, Donovan McNabb went to his first of what would be six Pro Bowls.

After the 2007 season, for the second of 4 straight years, Ryan Howard finished in the top five in MVP voting. He won the award in 2006.

Iguodala is an All Star in his eighth season as a Sixer. Is he the franchise's homegrown superstar?

Perhaps. But, more likely, the star, or stars, are in the making.

"I think Jrue Holiday is a guy, and Evan, also. Jrue is playing well beyond his years. If he continues to develop, he could be a premier player," DiLeo said. "And I think Evan, as his career evolves, he has a chance to be an elite player also."

The Sixers drafted Holiday 17th overall in 2009, and he has progressed nicely into a solid point guard. They took Turner second overall in 2010.

In terms of carrying a team, neither seems likely to challenge the likes of Rose any time soon. Given some help, though . . .

"Do we have to add some pieces? Yes," DiLeo allowed. "I do think we have a lot of assets. We are in position if the opportunity arises that we can go after a top player."

Of course, top players have a measure of free will, too. Nobody wants to join a loser. That problem might not be as severe as it once was.

"I think we're getting to a point, just like the Phillies and the Eagles, where top players will want to come and play for us, where, in the past, they would be hesitant to come and play for us," DiLeo said.

The Eagles first sold tackle Jon Runyan on their potential, then, for better or worse, snared Terrell Owens.

The Phillies famously convinced Roy Halladay they were a good long-term bet and they traded for him in December 2009; then, last year, they stole Cliff Lee from Texas and the New York Yankees; and, finally, snared Jonathan Papelbon this offseason.

The Sixers could be awash in salary-cap room this offseason, especially if they use the new amnesty clause to shed Elton Brand's salary.

But it might take more than cash to entice a player of Dwight Howard's pedigree.

In 2000, Runyan joined an Eagles team that not only had the promising McNabb but also boasted bookend tackle Tra Thomas, safety Brian Dawkins, cornerback Troy Vincent, defensive end Hugh Douglas and middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter.

Halladay invested not only in Howard but also in perennial All-Star second baseman Chase Utley, former MVP shortstop Jimmy Rollins and emerging talents such as Shane Victorino, Cole Hamels and Ryan Madson.

Certainly, the Sixers have nothing in their current cupboard nearly as enticing. Yet.

"I watch them all the time. They do some real good things when they play," Manuel said. "I like Doug Collins. I followed him as a player. I like listening to him."

Banner believes the magic might lie less on the floor than on the bench. After the sputtering reign of Maurice Cheeks, followed by the 2009-10 debacle of Eddie Jordan, Collins' oversized presence nicely fit the team's needs.

"You can't overstate the importance of changing the culture," Banner said. "You bring in a strong coach, with a strong staff."

Like Reid and Manuel, Collins strives to serve as the target for criticisms, to protect his sensitive charges as their sensibilities grow calluses.

Like Reid and Manuel, Collins benefits from decisions made long before he was even a candidate for his job.

Collins inherited Iguodala, Holiday, Young and even Brand and shooting guard Jodie Meeks.

Howard, Rollins, Hamels, Utley, Madson all were in the Phillies' system before Manuel replaced Larry Bowa as manager for the 2005 season - and even predated Manuel's arrival to the organization in 2003 as a front-office adviser.

Reid was part of the brain trust that drafted McNabb, signed Runyan and developed Thomas, but the rest of the talent - perhaps the more significant portion - was established before Reid succeeded Ray Rhodes after the 1998 season.

Banner, however, was there for all of it.

"Most of the core of that [2001] team were players drafted between 1997 and 1999," Banner said. "When we brought in the new coach, we had good, young players to build around."

The Sixers can only hope for similar results as they proceed with their building process.

Marcus Hayes covered the 2000 Eagles and 2007 Phillies as the beat writer for the Daily News.

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