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08/01/2006: "If A.I. Is The Answer..The Question Begs Who Is To Blame For Philly's Failures?"

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Written by Robert Bonnette
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Philadelphia GM Billy King came extremely close to making the biggest mistake of his lackluster tenure as the main personnel man in the Sixersí organization. For the past several months he has been shopping Allen Iverson, former MVP and multiple scoring champion whoís coming off a season where he averaged 33 points a game. And while he backed off last week when he saw that no one would give him equal value since they knew he was desperate, he still may make a deal with someone next year if the teamís fortunes donít improve this coming season.

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Even though Iverson is still by far the best player on the team, one of the top ten or fifteen best players in the league, and one of the biggest stars in the league, King has fallen into the trap of believing that the only way to fix the future is to jettison the present. Getting rid of Iverson makes little sense, except in the world of over-rationalization that many NBA GMs live in. In their world, itís a good idea to give out huge contracts to players who havenít proven themselves worthy, like King has with Samuel Dalembert, and to trade for players who already make huge salaries and are past their prime, like King did with Chris Webber. And when these moves backfire like anyone with a brain could have predicted they would, these GMs respond by trying to trade away their only valuable asset, their franchise player. What this does more than anything else is buy the GM a few more years since trading away the franchise player means that he has to start over as far as building a contender. Trading Iverson will leave the Sixers with a team full of mostly young players who donít know how to play winning basketball yet, so King will be able to play the rebuilding card for another season or two and keep his job. Trading the franchise player is second only to firing the coach on the totem pole of moves that are designed to make it look like youíre doing something when you really arenít.

Now King is not the only guilty party here. NBA history is full of seemed like a good at the time deals where a team traded away its best player in an effort to sacrifice present success (and in some cases, mediocrity) for future success. In just about every case, the results of these trades have been disastrous. Can anyone remember who the Milwaukee Bucks received in return for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? I doubt it. Wilt Chamberlain was dealt twice, for players that probably havenít been mentioned since the deal was reported in the papers. In modern times, there is the infamous trade that the Sixers made in 1992 when they dealt Charles Barkley for the trio of Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry, and Andrew Lang. Hornacek was a former and future All-Star, but Perry and Lang were garbage players that added nothing to anyoneís team over their careers. The Sixers would go six years without a playoff appearance after making that trade, and had some truly awful years in between. Iversonís arrival in 1996 was the beginning of the turnaround, which culminated in a 2001 trip to the NBA Finals to cap off Iversonís MVP season. Iversonís current teammate Webber was part of a similar trade; in 1999 the Washington Wizards grew tired of his off the court shenanigans and dealt Webber, then in his prime, to the Sacramento Kings for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe. It was a good deal on paper, at least to then-Wizards GM Wes Unseld; Richmond was a 20-point scorer whoíd recently been MVP of the All-Star game and Thorpe was a veteran power forward who was a good player. But Richmond went off the cliff after arriving in Washington and Thorpe never played a game for the Wizards. Like the Sixers, the Wizards suffered for six years until they made the playoffs again. Clearly there isnít much in the way of a precedent for a successful trade of a franchise player who is still in his prime.

So given the history of these kinds of deals, why would King even think about doing this? Why would you trade a player like Allen Iverson for what will likely be fifty cents or less on the dollar? The only reason is that King has painted himself into a corner with a series of bad deals and has assembled a roster that is good for a near miss at a playoff spot, maybe a seventh or eighth playoff seed at best. Over the last two years heís added two bad contracts to the mix, Dalembertís six year $60 million deal and Webberís deal, which has two years and over $43 million left on it. Those two contracts alone completely wipe out most of the Sixers cap room, allotting over $30 million a season for a declining superstar with a bum knee and a center who is still trading on potential after five seasons in the league. They also have almost $18 million in cap space allocated to players no longer with the team. With no cap room to speak of, King canít go out and get any players who may be able to help through free agency, which leaves him in a real bind. The fan base has gotten restless, tired of a team that has been a first round loser at best and a lottery team at worst since that Finals appearance in 2001, so King is feeling pressure to make a change, any change, to help improve his clubís place in the standings. The only way to do that is to trade away one or more of his big salaried players, either for a group of players with expiring contracts or whose individual salaries are low enough to attract the interest of other teams in future trades. Of Kingís three big salary players, only Iverson has any real trade value, so heís the one on the block.

Now there is one thing that may keep Iverson in a Sixers uniform, and thatís the low number of teams interested in making a deal for him. Itís not that they donít want him on their team; itís the price tag thatís scaring them away. Iverson is due roughly $58 million over the next three years, which is bad enough. But the fact that the Sixers are really trying to get some good players in return and not just trash makes things more complicated. When these trades are made you maybe get one good player and one or two scrubs out of the deal; you never get equal value in return but you do try to get at least one guy youíd want to keep around. Thatís much easier said than done here because of the salary involved. Whatís more likely is getting another teamís unwanted high priced player like Kenyon Martin, or a combination of journeymen like the Sixers gave up to get Webber from Sacramento. If King isnít willing to bite the bullet and trade Iverson for the latter, he may never be able to make a deal. Of course, trading Iverson for some trash is likely to get King run out of town faster, much in the way that Rob Babcock got fired from the Toronto Raptors largely because he traded Vince Carter to the Nets for almost nothing. The ball really isnít in Kingís court here; itís up to someone else to decide to be nice to him and offer him a legitimate swap if the trade is to happen. If no such person emerges, then Iverson will remain a Sixer for at least another year. Then the process will start up again, probably with the same results.

King has been in charge of the Sixers for three years now, and hereís how his team fared: two trips to the lottery, and one first round playoff exit. Nice. Along the way, heís failed to acquire anyone of any consequence to pair with his lone All-Star and has instead overburdened his bossís payroll with a former All-Star in decline and a bunch of guys who have shown more potential than they have actual greatness. The biggest signing of his tenure has been re-signing a center whose offensive numbers suggest heís a defensive specialist, but who was benched this past season for not doing very much of that, either. Between Webber and Dalembert, King has managed to completely get his team stuck in NBA purgatory for the next few years. By the time they get out, Iverson will be past his prime and on the downside of his career. It looks like King has gone to the Isaiah Thomas school of team management, where you simply throw a lot of money around to try and make things better, even when that money isnít buying you much. Webber is completely untradeable for at least another year, and Dalembert is stuck there for the next five. Kingís only course of action is to try and trade Iverson, but based on history that more than likely wonít work out either. Itís not a good time to be a Sixers fan, and you have only one man to blame for it all. Not Allen Iverson, who gives it his all every time he takes the court, and leaves none of you any reason to feel you were cheated out of your hard earned money. Not Larry Brown, or Jim OíBrien, or Maurice Cheeks, each of whom has tried their best to accomplish something meaningful with a limited roster. The blame falls with King, who has been a part of the Sixers organization since Larry Brown arrived in 1997 and should have a better idea of how a contender should be assembled around Iverson, seeing as how he helped put together the team that Iverson led to the Finals and all. But instead he joins the ranks of the incompetent GMís alongside Thomas, Kevin McHale, and Mitch Kupchak, to name a few. Sucks to be you, Sixers fans; pull a chair and cry along with us Knicks fans. We definitely feel your pain