This dismal season in Philadelphia seems to have proved two things: The 76ers have too many aging players signed to fat contracts to quickly return to tide contention, and 28-year-old Allen Iverson cannot be the centerpiece of any long-term rebuilding campaign, because his horrendous example as a practice player would impede the development of young talent.
Does that mean the Sixers will trade Iverson? No, insists G.M. Billy King, who plans to upgrade Iverson's supporting cast this summer through trades, a high draft pick and the team's $5 million free-agent exception. He will also replace interim coach Chris Ford; possible successors include Maurice Cheeks (if he can get out of his deal with the Trail Blazers) and Mike Fratello, whom King interviewed last summer.
But even if the new coach is able to restore the hard-won discipline of the Larry Brown era, the Sixers still won't be good enough to challenge for the Eastern title. That's why King should trade Iverson this summer while his value is relatively high—and before it becomes clear to the rest of the league that the 76ers have no choice but to unload him.
Moving Iverson would be risky; the Sixers have a bad history of trading stars. It took them years to recover from their 1992 swap of Charles Barkley to Phoenix for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang. They also dealt Wilt Chamberlain, Chet Walker, the No. 1 pick in 1986 (Brad Daugherty) and Moses Malone to disastrous effect. Still, with the team's record having fallen to 25-38 at week's end, the talk radio demands to trade Iverson are mounting in Philly. Despite his 27.0-point scoring average (second in the league), AI was shooting a miserable 39.0% and has utterly failed as a leader.
While some teammates continue to look past Iverson's late-night partying and his lax practice habits, Glenn Robinson, Derrick Coleman and Kenny Thomas have followed Iverson's example by acting as if they too can do as they please. "We haven't worked hard and executed like we have in the past," says point guard Eric Snow. "The sense of urgency hasn't been there."
Iverson's behavior and the $91.4 million he's owed through 2008-09 (when, as a 33-year-old, he'll earn $22 million) lead many to predict that it will be difficult to trade him. They're wrong. Iverson still has many admirers around the league who value his competitiveness. They believe that if he is asked to fit in on a winning team—as opposed to the 76ers, who were gathered to serve him—then he'll make the transition from streaky gunner to unselfish point guard. "He wants to do whatever it takes to win," says Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal, an Olympic teammate last summer. "I love to play with him."
Others will covet Iverson for his drawing power. Could Hornets owner George Shinn be persuaded to swap Baron Davis for a chance at 41 sellouts? There's only one way to find out. By dangling Iverson this summer, King may provide a happy ending to this nightmarish season.