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IN THE NBA, franchise players are as rare as an unquestioned defensive three-second call or a piece of lint on David Stern's suit. Acquiring someone with the tools to be one is a general manager's primary goal, and helping a player realize that potential is a coach's greatest achievement.
Can swingman Andre Iguodala be the 76ers' franchise player? When Philadelphia drafted him with the ninth pick in 2004, it already had Allen Iverson serving as the focal point of the offense—and a lightning rod for the media—which gave Iguodala, who left Arizona after his sophomore year, the freedom to mature. But when the Sixers dealt AI to the Nuggets last December, the other AI found himself as the team's go-to guy. "I don't think defenses were really keying in on me when the trade was first made, and I evolved into that role," says Iguodala. "I think I have to be that guy that opponents identify when they [play us]."
In Iverson's absence, the 23-year-old Iguodala has emerged as one of the game's most versatile players. He joined Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Tracy McGrady as the only players with at least 18 points, five rebounds and five assists a game last season and at week's end was averaging a team-best 18.1 points, a career-high 6.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists and 1.93 steals. Production like that means that Iguodala is already a franchise player, right?
Not necessarily. "I view Andre as a supporting guy," says Pacers coach Jim O'Brien, who guided Philly during Iguodala's rookie season. "He's a wonderful talent who can fill up the stat sheet. But I don't think he has the Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James type of game that would enable you to build a whole franchise around him."
Indeed, the issue isn't whether a player is a building block (which Iguodala is), but whether he's the foundation on which a winning team can be built. Having big numbers on a floundering club (Philly was 5--11 through Sunday) doesn't earn one the franchise tag. For the Timberwolves (2--13), power forward Al Jefferson was one of six players in the league averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds though Sunday. Swingman Joe Johnson led the Hawks (6--9) in scoring (22.1) and assists (5.7) and is in line to make his second consecutive All-Star team. But is either a franchise player? "Nope," says an Eastern Conference executive. "They are the best players on their franchises but not even close to being franchise players."
The ability to deliver in the glare of the spotlight is the best measure of whether a player is franchise caliber, and Iguodala has yet to face that test. "I think pressure facilitates [a player's development]," says the executive. "Franchise players are defined by their success and their ability to shoulder the pressure of being the marquee guy on a winning team."
Could the Sixers be doing Iguodala a disservice by asking him to take up where Iverson left off before he's ready? Most coaches and executives believe there's little risk in asking too much of a young talent. Besides, Philly coach Maurice Cheeks is convinced that when the time comes, Iguodala will prove his worth. "He has the abilities that allow him to be a special player," Cheeks says. "He has to work toward being that guy, but his abilities say he can do it."