Friday, October 10, 2008

Re-Branded Sixers are relevant again

For younger fans, the rivalry between the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics doesn't exist. For older fans, it's a different story.

If you grew up as a Sixers or Celtics loyalist in the late '70s or '80s, you likely have vivid memories of the greatest rivalry in professional sports.

If you think the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees' enmity is intense now -- you would have been captivated by Philly and Boston on the hardwood. You see, comparing anything to Julius Erving's 76ers teams and Larry Bird's Celtics clubs would be like saying Lewis-Holyfield was the equal of Ali-Frazier.

The Sixers and Celtics had it all -- history, passion, hate, envy and perhaps what fuels a rivalry most -- similar talent on both sides of the ball. They also kept an eye on each other at all times.

For instance, when the Sixers tore through the NBA after acquiring Moses Malone in the 1982-83 season, the chieftain of the Celtics -- Red Auerbach -- was concerned, and not about Moses, believe it or not.

The cigar-smoking legend had his own great big men but was obsessed with stopping one of the greatest pure scorers ever -- the aptly nicknamed 'Boston Strangler' -- Andrew Toney. Revisionist basketball historians -- most of them too young to remember the period in question -- say Auerbach acquired the late Dennis Johnson to compete with Magic Johnson and the Lakers.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The architect of the Celtics brought in the game's best on-ball defender to try and stop Toney, who lit up Boston on a regular basis and once scored 25 points against them in one quarter.

D.J. was up to the task and helped turn the tide back toward the Celtics, who were back on top of the NBA mountain again by '83-84.

That rivalry is all but hidden now. Erving is hawking Dr, Pepper while Mo Cheeks is 15 years removed from a playing career and coaching the Sixers. Meanwhile, Bird is safely tucked away in Indiana and Danny Ainge is running the Celts.

What's left is a lot of history and very little else. After all, it's hard to be captivated by years of watching Willie Burton and Willie Green try and break down the likes of Greg Minor and Tony Allen.

The good news is that the rivalry is about to be born anew.

The Celtics and Ainge have already done their part, acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to team with Paul Pierce, and the result was their 17th NBA championship last season.

Now, the Sixers are trying to follow suit. Team president Ed Stefanski was able to bring in a star of his own in Elton Brand and also added a slew of role players like the defensive-minded Royal Ivey at guard, sharp-shooting swingman Kareem Rush, veteran big men Donyell Marshall and Theo Ratliff, along with athletic rookie Marreese Speights.

The result is a deep and talented roster ready to contend with the Celtics, even if Cheeks can't admit it.

"Boston was the best team in the league," Cheeks said at a recent media luncheon. "To compare us to them, come on, we have a long way to go. That's a stretch to say we're even with Boston."

True enough, but since Cheeks' club won 40 games last season and took the Detroit Pistons to the limit until Flip Saunders figured out that they couldn't knock down a jumper (a problem that should be alleviated with the addition of Rush and Marshall), 50 wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals doesn't seem like stretch.

In short, the gap is closing.

Assuming he is healthy, Brand is a stud. Since he has spent most of his career playing in basketball purgatory with that other Los Angeles team, a lot of people didn't know that the former Duke star is one of only four current NBA players that has averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds throughout their careers. The others being Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Garnett.

To average those kind of numbers, you have to be an NBA dinosaur -- a legitimate low-post threat who can play with his back to the basket. Brand will team with the talented Andre Iguodala to give Cheeks a formidable 1-2 punch.

When we last saw A.I. version 2.0, the Pistons' Tayshaun Prince was embarrassing him with his length. The Sixers' star looked downright skittish on the big stage, a shrinking violet, while players like Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young and Jason Smith -- all seeing their first postseason action -- weren't nearly as nervous, jittery or tense.

Through it all, Cheeks and Stefanski still deferred to Iguodala. He was "the guy," a role ill-fitted for the Arizona product.

Now Iguodala doesn't have to be the top option. When Brand scribbled his name on an $82 million dollar deal, Iguodala's short reign as "Batman" in Philadelphia was over, and now he can slip into a more appropriate role.

Most think Andre can be the perfect "Robin," an Academy Award winning supporting actor that will stuff a stat sheet and torture people defensively a la Scottie Pippen. And that sounds like a winning formula for the championship-starved City of Philadelphia.

"Expectations are always higher, but your expectations can't be higher than ours, Cheeks said."The way we played toward the end of last year, we need to carry it over."

And carry it over they will...The Sixers are relevant again.

"That's the hope," Brand said. "Hopefully it's the baby steps of something great later on. We have a lot of goals and hopefully they can come to fruition."

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