Despite mainstream media portrayal as one of America’s more tortured cities/fan bases, I, with all the credibility of someone’s who’s never set foot in the city (scale of 1-100, maybe a 6?), tend to think the sports suffering of the city of Philadelphia is either a) overblown or, at the very least, b) rapidly fading into the past. Truth is, Philly fans have enjoyed a fantastic decade, with each of the city’s major teams at least once reaching the final rung of the championship ladder, with the 2008 Phillies succeeding in bringing home the prize. While getting close and falling short may sting, there’s a town in Northern Ohio that… never mind.
This occurred to me, admittedly in a largely NBA-centric sense, as I sifted through the history of the Philadelphia 76ers (and Syracuse Nationals, as they were previously known) in order to assemble an all-time starting five. While there’s little argument that only the Lakers and the Celtics occupy the NBA penthouse, both in terms of teams success and quality of talent through the years, it’s tough to avoid placing the Philadelphia 76ers at the very top of the next tier, given the franchise’s 9 Finals appearances (trailing only LA & Boston), 3 Championships (1967, 1983 and 1955 in Syracuse) and laundry list of superstars and legends. Though the years, this franchise has been stacked with talent.
The only bright spot in a pretty sparse category. In more than a decade with the Sixers, Cheeks established himself as one of the best defensive guards of his era, was selected to four All-Star teams and was the floor general for several championship-caliber teams, including the 1983 title winner.
As impressive as his on-court resume is, his longevity with organization, as the lone bridge between generations, is equally noteworthy. The Sixers’ top scorers in his rookie season, 1978-79, were Julius Erving and Doug Collins, with Bobby Jones also featuring on the team. In the years to come, Cheeks saw the arrival of Moses Malone (and the aforementioned Fo-Fo-Fo title team), Andrew Toney and Charles Barkley and the retirements of Doc and Bobby Jones. Cheeks' run in Philly drew to a close in 1988-89, with Barkley now firmly in his prime, and Hersey Hawkins and Mike Gminksi (Impressive, I know) playing prominent roles.
A quick side note: did you know that in 1988-89, Mike Gminski (Mike Freaking Gminski!) averaged 17.2 ppg and 9.4 rpg? How crazy is that? Crazier yet, it was arguably not his best year! (Gonna make you look that one up)
With Allen Iverson falling into the two-guard category, Cheeks’ only competition was the sadly outclassed Eric Snow and Andre Miller, whose stats (15.9 ppg, 6.9 apg, 1.3 spg) stack up well, but aren’t backed up with any team success.
This one could be its own book. Not only is Allen Iverson the toughest guard in NBA history and one of the league’s best-ever scorers, he’s one of the two most important players in franchise history. And while the impact of Dr. J’s arrival in Philly can’t be discounted, AI was more important on the floor and to the fan base. Even for non-Philly fans, Sixers home games from 2000-2003 were almost appointment viewing for NBA fans. It may have been the greatest and most genuine relationship we’ve seen between player and his fans. To watch this little guy feed off of that rabid crowd, as they fed off of him, was awesome. And to watch the way he carried the 2001 Sixers, a team that prominently featured the likes of Eric Snow, Jumaine Jones and Aaron McKie, was absolutely incredible. It's been argued that Shaq, and not Iverson, should not have won the 2001 MVP award. Not only was AI fully deserving of the award, for the purpose of this exercise, dragging that Sixers team to within three wins of a championship is the equivalent of actually winning a ring.
Iverson’s impact on not only the Sixers, but also the entire NBA cannot be overstated. He introduced the NBA to real hip-hop (sorry, DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince at All-Star Weekend in the 1990s don’t count) and to a gritty toughness that had not been seen before, or since.
In terms of numbers, Iverson is equally tough to beat: 28.1 ppg (including four seasons of 30+), 30 postseason ppg, eight All-Star selections (2 MVPs), a league MVP award, almost 20,000 points and 11 50-point games, including his breathtaking solo destruction of the Lakers in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals.
In discussing him, many people bring up everything that Allen Iverson is not- 42% FG, 3.7 turnover/game, his disdain for practice. The reality is that with little in the way of on-court help or physical stature, he accomplished as much as virtually anyone in franchise history, and he did it through sheer toughness and will, and in a way that was impossible to ignore.
As you can see, waxing poetic about Allen Iverson can be somewhat intoxicating and addictive, but it would be a crime to not spend some time on Hal Greer. Greer spent his entire career with the organization, remains the Sixers’/Nationals' all-time leader in points (21,586 in 1,122 games), was a 10-time All-Star and wingman on Philly’s Wilt-led 1967 title team, averaging 27.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 5.3 apg in the postseason.
Re-reading that last sentence, I can’t shake the feeling that maybe I am going down the wrong path with this pick. While there is a case to be made for that, the statistical edge, comparable team success (greater, if adjusted for quality of teammates), social impact on the league and the visceral experience of watching him play, the edge here goes to Iverson.
This was no gimme. Both Dr. J and Billy Cunningham enjoyed excellent runs with the Sixers, although it should be noted that Cunningham jumped to the ABA’s Carolina Cougars for two of his prime seasons (1972-73 & 1973-74), where he averaged 24-12 and 20-10. As a result, Erving played the equivalent of roughly two seasons (182 games) more with the franchise. Doc trumps Cunningham offensively (22 ppg v. 20.8, 50.7% FG v. 44.6% and 77.7% FT v. 72%) and in terms of accolades (11-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA, 1981 NBA MVP; four All-Star and three All-NBA selections for Cunningham), but not on the boards (6.7 rpg, v. 10.1 for Cunningham).
Additionally, each one won a single NBA title with Philly- neither as the best player. Erving was the second-best player (behind Moses Malone) on the Sixers’ 1983 title-winning team, while Cunningham was the #4 scorer and rebounder on the Wilt-led 1967 champs. In the end, Erving’s personal accolades and greater contribution to team success, combined with athleticism and revolutionary effect on NBA wing play, won him this spot.
This result was never really in question, but the numbers were closer than I’d anticipated. Statistically, Barkley and George McGinnis (21.6 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 2.1 spg in 234 games) are virtually in a dead heat. However, while McGinnis did enjoy a Finals run in 1977, he shrank in the postseason (Regular season: 21.4 ppg, 11.5 rpg; Postseason: 14.2- 10.4), as Bill Walton’s Portland Trailblazers topped the Sixers, turning Philly into just another temporary stop on his basketball travels.
Barkley, on the other hand, starred for the team in arguably the most competitive decade in NBA history. And while he took the Sixers past conference finals (reached his rookie year), he made six All-Star teams, four All-NBA 1st teams, won the 1986-87 rebounding title, averaging 14.6 rpg and was the post-Dr. J face of the franchise.
So… as is normally the case with Wilt, I guess the numbers are as good a place as any to start. Wilt’s numbers in his 3+ seasons with the Sixers may not measure up to what he did in his time with the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors, but then whose ever really have? A more experienced and arguably less selfish (the extent to which this is true is open for debate) Wilt returned to Philly midway through the 1964-65 season and despite scaling back his focus on the accumulation of points, still averaged 33.5, 24.3 and 24.1 ppg in three full seasons, grabbed at least 23.8 rpg and averaged almost 7 apg (including his league-leading 8.6 in 1968) en route to a trio of selections to the All-Star game and All-NBA team, as well as three MVP awards and his one alpha dog championship.
It’s sad that after averaging 21 ppg and 12 rpg and playing the central role in Philly’s 1983 title, and capturing the Finals MVP in the process, Moses Malone never had a chance at this spot. Such is the fate of centers pitted against Wilt Chamberlain- especially if you caught in-his-prime Wilt in rare team-first mode.