Once, Sixers landed free agents like LeBron

Once, Sixers landed free agents like LeBron
June 24, 2014, 2:00 pm
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Julius Erving and Moses Malone joined forces with the Sixers to win the NBA title in 1983. (AP)

Let’s get it out of the way at the top …

LeBron James is not coming to Philadelphia. Not ever. Sure, he’ll be in town for basketball games and maybe someday he’ll be in a private plane that stops at the airport to get refueled. But that’s a big maybe.

Otherwise, it will be airport to the hotel to the arena to the airport for James when he’s within the city limits.

Play for the Sixers?


But what if LeBron would come to the Sixers? What if this was a different time, like when the Sixers were in the mix for the best stars in the game? That used to happen. It used to be that NBA superstars came to Philadelphia because they wanted to and not because they were drafted and were stuck. Sure, eventually players like Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson re-signed to stay with the Sixers and enjoyed their time in town.

But they also were traded away, too.

Once, players like LeBron James landed in Philadelphia and stayed. In fact, the Golden Age of Sixers’ basketball was formed with a free agent (of sorts) along with a free-agent who won the MVP three times.

From 1977 to 1985, the Sixers went to the NBA Finals four times and to the Eastern Conference Finals seven times. Julius Erving, the de facto free agent who was sold to the Sixers by the New York Nets when the ABA folded, and Moses Malone led those teams.

In 1982, Malone was the biggest-named free agent in league history to that point. After winning two straight NBA MVP Awards and carrying a 40-42 team to the NBA Finals, Moses decided he needed some help. Erving, though he had a stellar supporting cast with Maurice Cheeks, Doug Collins, Darryl Dawkins, Bobby Jones and Andrew Toney, as well as George McGinnis during the title run in ’77, also needed one more piece.

Malone was that missing piece.

Everyone knows what happened next. The Sixers went 65-17, Malone got his third straight MVP and Erving finally got his ring with the famous, “fo’, fo’ fo’ ” run.

It was not unwise to think that the good times would continue with the Sixers. A year after winning the title in 1983, the Sixers drafted Charles Barkley with the No. 5 pick. They also had the No. 10 pick and selected Leon Wood, who was fresh off winning the gold medal with Michael Jordan at the Los Angeles Olympics.

Instead of building and growing with the Doc, Moses, Barkley, Cheeks, Toney and Jones, the Sixers tore it down. Owner Harold Katz traded Malone, second-year player Terry Catledge and the No. 1 overall pick in the 1986 draft (Brad Daugherty) for Jeff Ruland and Roy Hinson.

Just like that, it was over.

"Our team went downhill after that,” Barkley recalled on Monday’s edition of Philly Sports Talk. “That was unfortunate because I wanted to win here in Philadelphia.”

As it turned out, Malone was the last superstar-type free agent the Sixers ever signed. Elton Brand signed for the infamous “Philly Max” in 2008, but that was a year after he had surgery to fix his ruptured Achilles. Brand was never the 20-and-10 guy he was before the injury.

Plus, the Sixers never really had a plan in place or the cap space to grow. Even when Allen Iverson was the superstar, the team had trouble surrounding him with players needed to complement his skills. The Sixers caught lightning in a bottle in 2001, but that wasn’t sustainable.

The way it works is superstars like LeBron James go to teams with a chance to win a title and the cap space to lure other free agents. Right now the Sixers just have the cap space.

Maybe they will have both sometime soon.

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