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Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

A few months ago I was talking with some colleagues at work about baseball, and they asked me who I root for. I answered that I am a "long-suffering Phillies fan." Upon reflection, the use of "long-suffering" is redundant. The Phillies have been around since 1880, and they have won the championship once in their 126 years of existence. You could look it up.

The local ice hockey team imploded early in the season, with GM Bob Clarke apparently suffering career burnout or, better yet, all but conceding that he failed to keep up with the game's sudden and swift evolution into one that rendered the "Broad Street Bullies" style of play which the Flyers fancied obsolete. There are those of us who remember the likes of Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, Bob "The Hound" Kelly, Don "Big Bird" Saleski and Andre "Moose" DuPont with a smile, but there were times back then when the local six resembled more of a WWE last-man-standing free-for-all than ice hockey. Today, the team struggles. Finesse is the word of the day in the NHL.

The local professional football team also faces some evolutionary questions. Four particularly come to mind. First, is it wise to have the coach in charge (totally) of personnel decisions? Second, does the coach suffer from myopia when it comes to using a big running back (was Keith Byars actually the last "big back" in the City of Brotherly Love -- he caught more than he ran, come to think of it) and getting better players at linebacker, a position that has been understaffed for years? Third, have opponents finally solved the one-time genius of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson? Fourth, does the not-as-beloved-as-he-should-be Donovan McNabb's string of season-ending injuries over the course of the past four years send a signal that the Eagles should start grooming a young quarterback to take over the reins? These questions dog the Eagles and the fans, but as writer Michael Lewis points out in an article on fourth-down plays in this month's "ESPN the Magazine", the gap between the knowledge of the fans and coaches and team officials is the widest in professional football. That statement isn't comforting for the fans, not all of whom would agree with it. But assuming for the moment that the statement is true, the fans who take it at face value are left even more confused. Right now they're hoping that 36 year-old Jeff Garcia, a one-time Pro Bowl quarterback with a losing record as a starter in his career, can lead the Birds back to the playoffs.

Good luck, as they're at New York and Dallas and play Atlanta, another playoff contender at home. The odds are they could just miss out on the playoffs. Sweep these three games, and Chicago had better look out. The bet here is that the hometown Birds will finish 1-2.

And then there's the local hoops team.

They're in the midst of trading their "star", the enigmatic Allen Iverson, and, in the process, "blowing up" the team so that they'll have lots of cap space and perhaps win the Greg Oden sweepstakes (which, having seen Oden play, seems worth a shot). Iverson has been a divisive factor on the Philadelphia sports scene. Those who love him cite his passion for the game, his talent and how hard he plays. Those who do not care for him cite his flaunting of team rules, his disdain for practice, his inability to make teammates better and his shooting too much. In rebuttal, those who support him will argue that the team never procured enough talent to help Iverson excel to his full potential and that the 2001 season (where the 76ers made the NBA finals) is an example of just how good he was because he lacked a prime-time teammate as a go-to alternative on offense. In rebuttal to the rebuttal, the detractors will argue that the 76ers could not develop a prime-time alternative to Iverson on offense because Iverson wouldn't let it happen, he had to be the show, and he wouldn't share.

It's true that Iverson plays very hard on the court. It's also true that he's a combination guard that doesn't work in the current construct of the NBA. He's a "bring-it-up-and-shoot-it" point guard or a "too small two guard." In the former case, he isn't great at finding the open man the way a pure point guard should. In the latter case, at a probable 6' tall he's a defensive liability. It also gets tiring to see 9-24 shooting nights.

He's 31, and while he still has a high motor you have to wonder how much tread there is left on him. (I also wonder what those tattoes will look like when he's 60). Charles Barkley said the other day that he doesn't think Iverson can change, and I agree. He's been in the league for ten years -- how will he change?

So why would another team be interested? His track record indicates that he can score points, he plays hard and he'll play a lot of minutes. But it also suggests that he doesn't lead the way a captain of a championship team could and is too selfish. He has a big contract (okay, so it expires in a few years) and, yes, he's 31.

Is he really "The Answer" for a team that needs that little extra something to make a championship run? And, if so, could that team afford him without going over the salary cap? Or would he merely be a draw for a team that's lagging in attendance? "Come see the great Iverson, watching him play hard, and watch him go one-on-three while two college all-Americans stand on the wing on a clearout?" Is that really want Golden State or Memphis want or need?

The rumors have intrigued me. If the Clippers offered Shaun Livingston and Corey Maggette, I'd do it in a heartbeat, even if the addition of Maggette would leave the 76ers with three swingmen (the other two being Andre Iguodala and Rodney Carney, both of whom have potential). If the Celtics offered Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Delonte West and a first-round pick, I'd have to be restrained from jumping too quickly. For right now it seems that perhaps one of the few GMs with worse judgment than the too-long-tenured Billy King is the Celts' Danny Ainge. Last I heard, neither deal was on the table. The Clippers don't want to trade Livingston, and the Celtics want to keep Green. The rumors also are that Billy King is asking a king's ransom for Iverson.

Meanwhile, the 76ers keep on losing, and their streak remains at 9 games. Something has to happen soon. Yes, they cleared out Iverson's locker, but no, it doesn't appear that he has back spasms (which was the initial cause recited for keeping him out of the lineup). If the 76ers don't move soon, Commissioner David Stern has to step in to prevent this whole affair from becoming a farce. There's a healthy player and a team sliding into the lottery, and the healthy player isn't playing. The 76ers have their motivation too --- they're paying Iverson right now for not playing. Still, you can't let a team slide deep into the lottery with that much fun and purpose, can you?

Whither the NBA? The one-time proud Celtics, Knicks and 76ers are all plum awful. The product is not all that watchable, save for a few teams that move the ball around and have players with a complete set of skills. A star player is on the block and the pro basketball nation is as split over him, it appears, as the country was over George Bush and Al Gore in 2004.

The affair will bear close watching. Who will win -- Iverson, King, the 76ers or the team who trades for him? Naturally, all can win if Iverson is traded to a contender, the contender goes to the NBA finals, King gets some good value in return and the 76ers slide deep into the lottery before doing their imitation of a phoenix. The only person at risk, of course, is King -- for if I were the 76ers, I'd scope out and hire a new GM to lead my rebuilding effort.

Meanwhile the Phillies need to shore up their bullpen and get another bat. The Eagles are befuddled, and the Flyers and 76ers just aren't any good. Philadelphians used to take refuge in college hoops, but the only team that's been a pleasant surprise this year has been Bruiser Flint's Drexel Dragons' team, which beat Villanova for the first time ever (and, despite its Division I status, has not been "admitted" to Philadelphia's storied Big 5, thus making it a "Big 6"). Villanova lost a good deal of talent to graduation and plays in the brutally competitive Big East. St. Joe's has a star in center Ahmad Nivins, but it's a young team that needs to develop depth. Temple is re-tooling, as it were, as Fran Dunphy is in his first year as head coach. The signs are positive on North Broad Street, but the big question will be whether Dunphy can recruit. LaSalle has made strides under Coach John Gianinnni, but they're a low-DI school now and not the school they were even 15 years ago when they had Doug Overton and Lionel Simmons. Penn is the class of the Ivies, but the Ivies aren't all that relevant on the national screen anymore. Put differently, the magic that Villanova and St. Joe's created during the pas 5 years is gone for now.

Which leaves Philadelphians waiting for spring training (the Phillies do have promise) and waiting for the Iverson trade story to break.

It's going to be a long winter in the City of Brotherly Love.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trying to follow Philadelphia sports with any fervor is like hitting your toes with a tiny hammer over and over. Yeah, it's tiny, but it still hurts like hell after some time.

I live right in center city and work at Penn, and have chosen to put all of my stock for the hope of Philadelphia sports in the Phillies. They don't look too bad going into next year, aside from the issues you'd mentioned.

The other 3 sports? Pshhh, whatever. I follow La Salle basketball only because I am alum. Yawn, they lose to UMBC. Season over.

Go Phils!

11:23 AM  

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