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By Chad Ford
Send an Email to Chad Ford Thursday, May 6
There was a point toward the end of the season when it appeared Allen Iverson had run out of answers.
Broken down, defiant and, for the first time in his career, downright lethargic, the Sixers' icon looked like toast.
GM Billy King had shopped him before the February trade deadline. When nothing materialized, Iverson began fighting with head coach Chris Ford. His shocking decision to sit out a game because Ford refused to place him in the starting lineup seemed like the final straw in a long, tumultuous love-hate affair between the Sixers and Iverson.
Iverson sells tickets. He dazzles, does things that most players in the league only can perform on a PlayStation. But could the Sixers ever really win with Iverson? With head coach and therapist Larry Brown gone, King began to legitimately wonder -- is there another coach in the league who can keep Iverson's head in the game?
When season ended, King met with Iverson and had a heart-to-heart. Most expected it to be a preliminary divorce hearing. Instead, King and Iverson emerged hand-in-hand, and King told reporters Iverson would remain a 76er next season.
"He said he wants to be a part of it," King said. "He's been here when it was bad, when it was good, to now when we're not in the playoffs. He says he loves it and doesn't expect to see himself ever playing for another team."
King then said he had no plans to trade Iverson. "My intention is, Allen will be on the roster."
To make sure things stayed that way, King quickly went about finding a replacement for Ford, who had tangled with Iverson too many times. Mo Cheeks, a close friend of Iverson's, was rumored to be the front-runner, but King pulled a stunning reversal and hired former Celtics head coach Jim O'Brien.
O'Brien is King's insurance policy. Iverson, who over the space of one year has killed three coaches -- Brown, Randy Ayers and now Ford -- won't be killing a fourth. At least not in Philly.
O'Brien said all the right things in his press conference. He said he wanted to coach Iverson. In fact, he insisted on it before he'd agree to join the Sixers.
"When you're dealing with somebody like Allen, I really wanted to be as close to 100 percent sure as I possibly could that I'd be coaching him," O'Brien said. "Billy obviously makes those decisions, but I wanted Billy to understand what I thought of Allen."
"He said to me, 'If I'm going to take this job, I want to have the chance to coach Allen Iverson,' " King said. "He said, 'I think he's one of the best offensive players, and an underrated defensive player. You don't get players like that, and I think I can win with him.' I don't think it was a [hiring] condition, but he made his point clear what he would like."
O'Brien appears, on paper, to be the perfect fit for the job. He'll ask his team to give its all on defense. In return, he'll let players do pretty much whatever they want on offense. Both roles should fit the Sixers. The team has a number of very capable defenders, including Iverson, Eric Snow and Samuel Dalembert. The team also has one very creative scorer who is at his best when he's improvising on the floor. After watching O'Brien let Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce jack up shots in Boston the past few years, the O'Brien-Iverson combo should be a match made in heaven.
Will O'Brien's presence be enough to get Iverson and the Sixers on the rebound? Here's a look at what to expect as Insider continues its summer blueprint series.
76ers Summer Blueprint
DRAFT: The Sixers likely will have the ninth pick in the upcoming draft. Local media has been lobbying the Sixers of late to consider drafting Saint Joseph's point guard Jameer Nelson with this pick. That seems downright silly on a number of different fronts.
One, if the Sixers really wanted Nelson, they probably could trade down 10 spots and still get him. Two, Nelson, a 5-foot-11 scoring point guard, isn't a good backcourt fit with the 6-foot-1 Iverson at shooting guard. Also, with Eric Snow firmly entrenched at the point for the next five seasons, it would be pretty hard to believe the Sixers would take Nelson unless they planned to move Snow or Iverson this summer.
Remember, the Sixers tried the small, scoring point guard thing several years ago when they drafted Speedy Claxton. We all remember how well that worked out.
More likely, the Sixers will try to fix what has been a constant problem over the past five years -- the small forward position. The Big Dog, Glenn Robinson, has just one year left on his contract, and there's no guarantee he'll be on the opening-night roster. The good news is a perfect fit might fall right into the Sixers' lap at No. 9. Stanford's Josh Childress is long, athletic, can shoot the ball, play multiple positions and uses his huge wingspan to play great defense.
The key for Childress is he doesn't need to shoot 20 times a game to be effective. He needs to get stronger, but I think this pick would be a slam dunk for the Sixers. If Childress is off the board, more depth in the paint is probably the way to go. A big, young Euro like Kosta Perovic, Andris Biedrins or even Damir Omerhodzic could make some sense.
FREE AGENCY: The good (or bad) news is the Sixers won't lose any significant free agents this summer. They have team options on Willie Green and Kyle Korver and likely will pick both of them up.
Thanks to King's free spending last summer, the Sixers are once again about $20 million over the cap. That means the most they'll have to spend in free agency is their mid-level exception. Now that there's a decent chance there will be a luxury tax next year (thanks to reduced revenues league-wide) the Sixers may not be able to, or be allowed to, spend it. They already are luxury-tax payers, and adding an extra $5.1 million to the payroll is really more like adding $10.2 million once the tax is figured in.
It's also unclear where they would spend the money. The best option would be to make a run at Celtics center Mark Blount, who has a great relationship with O'Brien and could give the Sixers another big weapon in the paint. But is he really worth his $5 million per year asking price?
Adonal Foyle might be a more economical fit, if they want to add a big man. Small forwards like Stephen Jackson, Eric Williams and Morris Peterson could fit, if they choose to use their mid-level exception. But big men like Erick Dampier, Marcus Camby and Mehmet Okur will be out of their price range.
TRADES: King was very active before the February trade deadline trying to shake up this roster. However, his inability to make any deals happen before the deadline could be telling this summer.
For the first time in several years, the Sixers seriously considered trading Iverson, but they couldn't work out a deal that made sense for them. With O'Brien in the house, look for them to hold onto Iverson unless someone gives them an offer they simply can't refuse. Given the lack of interest in Iverson in February, that isn't likely.
The Sixers would love to dump Robinson this summer, but trading him might not make much sense. Robinson was a terrible fit in Philly last year, and King should've known he was making a big mistake in signing him. Both the Bucks and Hawks, Robinson's previous teams, couldn't wait to dump him. He's a team cancer both on and off the court. His -4.2 plus/minus rating was the second-worst (behind Zendon Hamilton) of any player on the team.
Robinson is in the last year of a contract that pays him $12.1 million this year. So why don't they trade him? He will be difficult to move unless the Sixers are willing to take back a bad long-term contract in return. That would probably be a mistake, given their precarious cap position. Waiting for Robinson to come off the books next year will drop the Sixers below the luxury-tax threshold and give them the flexibility to re-sign Dalembert. If they take on a huge contract, that might not be financially possible.
The other player who should keep his luggage handy is Snow. There was a time Snow was the most underrated point guard in the league. But the combination of a bad year in 2003-04 and a huge five-year contract extension has killed most of his trade value. Plenty of teams are still interested, but the only way they'd trade for him would be if the Sixers take back a bad deal -- and a less-talented player -- in return.
Coleman, Greg Buckner and Aaron McKie also are candidates to be traded. However, their big, long-term deals also make them very difficult to move. Anything the Sixers get back in return will have little value.
COACHING: With not much expected to happen in the draft, free agency or trade-wise, the burden is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of O'Brien. The situation shouldn't be too unfamiliar to him. Several seasons ago he took over an underachieving Celtics team rocked by the resignation of Rick Pitino and quickly turned it into one of the hardest working, overachieving teams in the league without many changes to the roster.
O'Brien knows the key to his success in Philly is motivating veterans like Iverson, Snow, Robinson and McKie and developing young talents like Dalembert, Kenny Thomas and John Salmons. If he can just do that, the Sixers should be able to get back into the playoffs next season.
FRONT OFFICE: Hiring O'Brien was a great move by King, but long term, the Sixers are in a lot of trouble. O'Brien might be able to get this Sixers team to overachieve and get back into the playoffs, but no one is under the illusion it will be a Finals contender. The problem is that King has painted the team into a corner financially and has too few assets or financial flexibility to make changes. His decision to throw huge, long-term contracts at Snow and Thomas will come back to haunt the Sixers down the road.
The draft will be huge for King. He has one very nice young player in Dalembert, who, if he improves, could turn into a big star. He needs to add one more. If he can weed through all of the young players in this draft and pluck out a star, the Sixers' future will become immediately brighter. If he strikes out (and the Sixers have a history of that in the draft) his days in Philly will be numbered. Having mismanaged the cap will leave the team with few options, and someone else likely will have to come in to save a slowly sinking ship.