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NOT GUNNING FOR A FALL
LEE JENKINS
April 09, 2012
The 76ers are unselfish, take care of the ball and play stifling defense. But can they win in the playoffs with a star who doesn't shoot?
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April 09, 2012

Not Gunning For A Fall

The 76ers are unselfish, take care of the ball and play stifling defense. But can they win in the playoffs with a star who doesn't shoot?

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For decades the 76ers built according to a top-heavy blueprint, winning titles with Wilt Chamberlain, Dr. J and Moses Malone, and reaching the finals with Iverson. They anointed Iguodala another AI and, despite mixed results, showered him with a six-year, $80 million contract in August 2008. Iguodala's numbers skyrocketed but win totals and fan support didn't. "In many instances Dre was put in a position to fail," Collins says. The Sixers plowed through three coaches in three years, swapped point guards and general managers, ended one experiment with Chris Webber at power forward and started another with Elton Brand. They even brought back Iverson for a fruitless two-month cameo. In '09--10, as the Phillies reached their second straight World Series, the Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup finals and the Eagles went 11--5, Iguodala was the face of a franchise that lost 55 games, ranked 26th in attendance and had a higher winning percentage on the road than at home. It seemed he was the only person in Philadelphia left to boo. "In Philly, it's not about who you are, it's about what you do for us," Iguodala says. "You could be the worst person in the world, but if you score a lot of points or win a championship, you can murder somebody."

Chin raised and chest puffed, Iguodala can come across as aloof to the amateur body-language experts. Sixers officials have even asked him to lighten up on the court. But Iguodala rails against the NBA's "attention whores" who tailor their personalities and games for public consumption. He laments the lack of recognition paid to well-placed passes and slap-down steals. "We have a lot of players in this league who make max dollars and think, All I have to do is score and I don't care if we win or lose," Iguodala says. "But I believe in karma, and if you're a good teammate who spreads the ball and plays defense, it will turn."

Collins coached the Bulls when they acquired Pippen in '87, but he bonded with Iguodala over a different historical footnote. "I played in Philadelphia for eight years and was never booed," Collins says. "I told Dre, 'If you keep laying it out there and we start winning, the rewards will come.'" Collins dismissed the old model and called fewer sets for Iguodala, returning him to the comfort zone he occupied before Iverson left. "It's like he was free to be himself again," says Young. Last season Iguodala averaged a career-best 6.3 assists, and through Sunday he was pulling down 6.3 rebounds (which equals his career high), stuffing every column in the box score. "I still feel like I'm the Man on our team," Iguodala says. "It's just in a different way than people have seen before."

Like the 76ers as a whole, Iguodala cannot be fully appreciated without a raft of advanced defensive statistics. According to 82games.com, he was holding opposing small forwards to an efficiency rating of 8.8 at week's end, stunning when you consider Kobe Bryant is on the all-defensive team and was holding his counterparts at shooting guard to an efficiency rating of 12.2. "I learned from being a go-to guy what I didn't like," Iguodala says. "Coaches tell you, 'Get to the hole. Don't settle for jump shots.' So when I guard somebody, I want them to settle for jumpers—outside the paint but inside the three-point line—and then use my length to contest late." Iguodala memorizes where opponents hold the ball before they raise it up. Bryant is the toughest to strip because he cradles the ball by his hip; Lakers forward Metta World Peace might appear to be the easiest, because he puts it in front of his body, but he is trying to draw cheap fouls. "It makes no sense to me why so many good scorers can't defend," Iguodala says. "Like Lou Williams. He's one of the toughest guys to guard in the league, but he can't guard anybody. I don't get that."

Iguodala has long been the 76ers' best player, but only now are they his team. During President Obama's State of the Union address in January, Iguodala tweeted center Spencer Hawes: "dear mr president, I understand the struggles of trying to clean up the leader b4 you." Iguodala looked up to Iverson, but he noted his shortcomings and is still trying to fill the gaps. "For one thing, I try to show up early," Iguodala says with a laugh. "And stay late." He worries about his young teammates, stewing over their places on a crowded roster, and sparks the skull sessions that help them vent. "I like those deep conversations because you don't want them taking their work home," Iguodala says. "That's when guys start to drink." Iguodala has been wary of alcohol since college, when he convinced himself that it would lower his vertical leap.

Iguodala exemplifies all the areas in which the 76ers excel, and the one crucial area in which they falter, which could likely be their undoing in the postseason. Late in the fourth quarter, when they need a closer to take a tough jumper or draw a cheap foul, they often end up passing to each other. They are still looking for the Man on offense, and unless they can reprise the '48 Bullets, the search will continue into summer. "We're in the middle of the road here," says Collins, "but something really good is going to happen, and [players are] going to want to play in Philadelphia."

Who wouldn't? On most nights the Wells Fargo Center is close to full and the hecklers are occupied with either the opponents or the Eagles. The home team shares the ball and protects it. No one gets fined. The new owners recently dusted off the theme song from the 1970s, Here Come the Sixers, which blares over the loudspeaker. The chorus—"1-2-3-4-5-Sixers ... 10-9-8-76ers"—is so bizarrely catchy that players hum it in the showers. No one really knows what the verse means, but somehow it fits this group, endearing from one through 10.

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