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In his late 20s, Chris Webber was a multidimensional point forward who helped transform the Kings into one of the league's most successful franchises. No big man combined the 6'10" Webber's explosive moves around the rim with such a feathery touch and creative passes away from it. Now 32, and slowed by left knee surgery, Webber has been dismissed as a has-been since his heavily second-guessed trade to the 76ers last February. And even if he were healthy, would it matter? Critics of that trade were certain that Webber was destined for the same unhappy ending that befell Jerry Stackhouse, Glenn Robinson and Larry Hughes, high-scoring players who struggled to mesh with Allen Iverson.
Fast forward to last Friday night: Philadelphia was trailing the visiting Lakers by nine points late in the third quarter, in no small part because its offense had devolved into yet another episode of AI versus the world. But that's when the 76ers started running their offense through their big man, and Webber delivered: From the high post he got the assist on successive three-pointers by Kyle Korver and Iverson. Philadelphia's new emphasis on a team-minded approach, one that maximizes Webber's strengths, paid its biggest dividend in the game's final minute, when they whipped the ball around the perimeter as if they were running a passing drill in practice. Finally, Iverson punished the scrambling Lakers defense by sticking a wide-open, 19-foot game-winner with 22.3 seconds remaining. "I wouldn't think that I would get that shot," said Iverson afterward, marveling at how ball movement got him an open look more easily than 1,001 head fakes and crossovers.
After an 0-3 start, the 76ers had won four in a row through Sunday, and Webber was averaging 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. That's a far cry from the end of last season, when his production plummeted to 15.6 points and 7.9 boards in 21 games under then Philadelphia coach Jim O'Brien, who had trouble fitting the five-time All-Star into an offense custom-built for Iverson. "I had a [coach] who knew nothing about my game," says Webber. "It was the most difficult year I ever had in basketball--more than the timeout [his infamous gaffe in the 1993 NCAA Final]."
Webber spent the summer in Detroit convalescing physically and emotionally, shunning contact with the 76ers organization, even the newly-hired Maurice Cheeks, until the start of training camp. "I didn't want to hear any opinions on my body or my knee," he says. "I got back with people who knew me--basketball players, friends, trainers--and I spent the whole summer getting back to being myself." He dropped 15 pounds, strengthened the knee and regained some of his old nimbleness. Instead of dragging his left leg, as he often did last season, Webber is occasionally skying off it, as he did last week in a 112-97 win over Dallas. After faking a handoff to Iverson in the fourth quarter, Webber dribbled between his legs and then threw down a highlight-reel dunk.
To ensure that Webber and Iverson connected on the court, Cheeks made it a priority during the preseason to make Webber an integral part of the offense. Half of the Sixers' plays go through Webber, including some that involve the cuts and weaves that were a trademark of the Kings' attack and make full use of Webber's decision-making skills in the high post. The happy result is that, in addition to Webber's increased output, Iverson has seen no decline in his production (30.1 points, 7.9 assists). More significantly, Iverson's teammates aren't standing around, watching him go one-on-five. "Sometimes we're open, and we don't even know it until he finds us," forward Andre Iguodala says of Webber. "He keeps you alert on offense; you can't get bored out there."
"My knee gets stronger every game," says Webber. So too grow the hopes of his new team.
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