76ers know brighter days ahead with young core

From left, Philadelphia 76ers' Evan Turner, Jodie Meeks and Jrue Holiday laugh while waiting to talk to reporters during a media availability at the team's practice facility, Sunday, May 27, 2012, in Philadelphia. The 76ers lost 85-75 to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of their NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series on Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
May 27, 2012 12:09:43 PM PDT
The Philadelphia 76ers know brighter days are ahead after a surprising run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

They had co-owner Will Smith sitting courtside and playing along to the cameras.

They brought Julius Erving back in the fold. Allen Iverson made a stirring return, too.

But the biggest buzz at last came from the Sixers themselves. No longer mired in mediocrity, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Elton Brand and Co., carried the team from a 20-9 start into plucky postseason overachievers. Led by coach Doug Collins, the Sixers posted their first winning record (35-31) since 2004-05, and won a playoff series for the first time since 2003.

The Sixers knocked off the top-seeded, and undermanned, Chicago Bulls in the opening round and stretched the Boston Celtics to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. One day after the decisive 10-point loss in Boston, the Sixers consoled themselves knowing that brighter days are finally ahead.

"It's great to be an overachiever," Collins said Sunday. "But to be a champion, you can't overachieve."

Managing owner Joshua Harris and CEO Adam Aron all had great returns in the first year of their investment in the Philadelphia 76ers.

Now comes the hard part - turning them into a regular 50-win team and championship contenders.

"This is the big leagues," Harris said. "We're going to do what we have to do to make the team better. Whatever it takes are pretty strong words, but we're prepared to do what we have to do as ownership, financially or otherwise, to improve the team. We want to win."

To really win big, the Sixers might have to overhaul the roster.

The Sixers believe they are set in the backcourt with Turner and Holiday running the show for years ahead.

The rest of the roster remains in flux.

The potential returns for veterans Iguodala and Brand are murkier. Iguodala has long been the subject of trade speculation and the team could look to amnesty Brand.

Unlike last season's final day, when an unhappy Iguodala no-showed his exit interview with management, and refused to say he wanted to return to the 76ers, he was all smiles Sunday and optimistic about the organizations future.

Iguodala, one of the top defenders in the league, is a candidate this summer for the men's Olympic team. But a solid postseason - highlighted by the winning free throws in Game 6 to eliminate the Bulls - and one more year, plus an option on his contract, make him valuable trade bait.

"I always prepare to come back and be here," Iguodala said.

Iguodala said the fact that the Sixers have established themselves as a threat in the East makes them more attractive than in previous seasons.

"Last summer, I saw what we could do," Iguodala said.

He might have to see what they can do next season without Brand.

Under the right set of circumstances, Harris said the Sixers would use the amnesty clause, which allows a team to waive one player during the new labor deal and have 100 percent of his salary taken off the cap and the tax.

Brand is due $18 million in the final season of his five-year contract. While Brand is the locker room leader and heart of the Sixers, his production never merited the whopping deal he signed as one of the hottest free agents around. He averaged 11 points and 7.2 rebounds this season.

Brand understands the organization will do what's best, but he does not want to leave.

"I want to be here, absolutely," Brand said. "If it is (over), I definitely loved my time here."

He played through painful neck and shoulder injuries in the postseason and will have an MRI on Monday.

Williams, who led Philadelphia in scoring despite not starting a single game this season, was second in the balloting for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award. He can opt out of the final year of his contract that would pay him $6.4 million.

"If I was a betting man, I think I would be back," Williams said. "Obviously, it comes down to a deal, but I don't think that will be the hard part. This is home for me. I feel wanted here. I hope the feeling is mutual."

Because of the late purchase date and the lockout, the ownership group has yet to make its mark on the player personnel side. The Sixers clearly need more size and production in the frontcourt, another proven scorer or two, and a veteran point guard to mentor Holiday.

The Sixers hold the 15th overall pick in the draft, and picks 45 and 54 in the second round.

The Sixers hope those players will be a big part of their future.

Collins intends to be coaching them. He has two years left on his contract and wants to see this process through.

"I sure feel better right now than I did two years ago standing here wondering where this all might head," Collins said.

After a decade with little to root for, Collins has the Sixers on the brink of breaking through as rising contenders in the East.


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