76ers improved, but expect better

May 2, 2008 7:17:39 PM PDT
The 76ers reached the playoffs with only 34 games of fantastic basketball. Stretch that fun and fast-breaking style over a full season and Philadelphia believes it can run all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference.

The Sixers' expectations have gone from draft lottery and rebuilding to a winning record and capturing a playoff series or two.

"They're a little higher than they were last year," coach Maurice Cheeks said Friday. "We showed that we can do it. We showed we can go out and play not only exciting basketball, but we showed we can compete with some of the best teams in the league."

Even with the 76ers' Game 6 series-ending loss to Detroit over before the game's first timeout, they don't consider this season anything but a huge success. Preseason predictions had Philadelphia at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, Cheeks was on the hot seat in the final year of his contract, and guard Andre Iguodala was questioned for rejecting a nearly $60 million extension.

Take a look at them now.

That 18-30 start was all but forgotten with a 22-12 finish that put them in the postseason for the first time in three years. The Sixers (40-42) stretched the second-seeded Pistons to a surprising, somewhat competitive six-game series, including a blowout win in Game 3. And Cheeks earned a new deal for leading the turnaround.

"Nobody expected the team to make the playoffs or win 30 games, probably," guard Andre Miller said. "We exceeded (expectations)."

Now comes the hard part. Iguodala still wants an extension that will make him the highest paid player on the team, but the money offered to him in October seems unlikely to turn up again after he flopped in his first postseason series as Philly's go-to scorer.

The Sixers and team president Ed Stefanksi, hired when Billy King was fired in December, want to keep their versatile fourth-year starter. But Iggy's Flop over the six-game series (13.2 ppg vs. 19.9 in the regular season) raised some serious questions about his worth to the franchise that made him the No. 9 overall pick in the 2004 draft.

Iguodala and the Sixers must wait until July 1 to reopen negotiations, at which point Philadelphia will hold a right of first refusal on any offer from another team. Cheeks wants his leading scorer back next year.

"He's one of the reasons why we got to where we were," Cheeks said. "Without him, we wouldn't have gotten to that point. His first time being in the playoffs as the guy that they focus on was pretty tough.

"It's not a knock on him. They were that much better defensively."

Iguodala, who never removed his iPod buds from his ears Thursday, tried to tune out talk that he could have done more to help the Sixers. Might they have won the series or reached a Game 7 had he played at his normal level?

Iguodala talked after his struggles, like a four-point outing in Game 2, that he was valuable to the Sixers in more ways than simply his point production. But Iguodala made it clear on Friday after the Sixers met for the final time that he learned he needed to establish himself as a true No. 1 option and take over games, and not settle for serving as a complementary player.

"Just continue to be more of a scorer," Iguodala said. "I'm an unselfish type of player so I understand I have to become better at becoming more selfish, being able to take any type of shot when we need a basket."

He believed a contract extension will get done and called the odds of signing only a one-year qualifying offer a "slim possibility."

The Sixers have some room to spend. They traded 3-point ace Kyle Korver to open some salary flexibility and years of bad contracts finally come off the books, giving Philadelphia about $11 million in salary cap space.

A true power forward and a legitimate 3-point threat could inch Philadelphia closer to the upper echelon in the East. Boston and Detroit are veteran teams with shortening windows of title chances, making a younger team like the Sixers capable of becoming a contender over the next several seasons.

"I don't want to say we need more help because I think we can find a way to work through it," Iguodala said. "We can definitely add some more guys to come in and contribute for us."

One way to keep the nucleus would be to offer Miller an extension. Miller, who thrived with the young players like Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young, averaged a career-best 17 points and added 6.9 assists. Miller, though, was noncommittal about signing an extension and wanted to see what kind of moves the Sixers made this summer before deciding his future. Plus, Stefanski, who did not talk to the media on Friday, might not even offer the ninth-year point guard a new deal.

"The up-tempo game is where it's at for this team right now with the athleticism and the younger players, so I'm happy to be a part of that," Miller said.

Still, the 76ers are finally headed in the right direction.

"It's definitely something that we have to build on," Miller said. "We have a nucleus and some exciting young guys, some athletic guys and we'll see what happens over the summer."