76ers hardest hit as injuries pile up around league

ON THE NBA

Pro Basketball

October 28, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The Philadelphia 76ers played much of the fourth quarter of Monday's exhibition game against the Washington Wizards with the following lineup: Raja Bell and Speedy Claxton at guard, Jerome Moiso and Robert Traylor at forward and Alvin Jones at center.

Moiso and Traylor are gone, part of the three-team, eight-player, one-draft-pick trade the Sixers worked out Thursday with the Charlotte Hornets and Golden State Warriors. It brought Derrick Coleman back to Philadelphia and raised doubts about whether the Eastern Conference champions could repeat.

The preseason has been a mess for coach Larry Brown, who watched Aaron McKie and Allen Iverson opt for late-summer operations that will keep McKie out for more than a month and could keep Iverson out of the lineup when Philadelphia opens the regular season Tuesday in Minnesota.

On top of that, Philadelphia lost point guard Eric Snow for three months to a broken thumb and saw four other key players - centers Dikembe Mutombo and Matt Geiger and forwards George Lynch and Matt Harpring - miss a considerable amount of training camp.

"We were hopeful everybody would be back by the first game, but right now we just don't know," said Brown, who will try to resurrect the free-falling career of the 34-year-old Coleman. "I think as the season goes on we should have them. We have 27 away games before the All-Star break."

Brown and the Sixers aren't alone in their plight.

The injury bug has affected several teams since the end of last season.

The defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers started training camp without Shaquille O'Neal, who was recovering from off-season toe surgery, and will play the early part of the season without point guard Derek Fisher.

Sacramento's Chris Webber will miss at least a month or more with a high-ankle sprain, and Orlando's Mike Miller, last season's Rookie of the Year, will be out a month or more after suffering a fractured right foot.

Given those injuries going into the start of the regular season this week, teams that were picked to finish at or near the top of their divisions might get off to a slow start. Here's a few predictions on what might happen from now until June.

Biggest upswing

Despite their 4-3 record in the preseason and all the commotion in Memphis, the relocated Grizzlies will still have to play a much-tougher Western Conference schedule, even though they're right next to Graceland.

It will be easier for Eastern Conference teams to move up in the standings, so look for the New Jersey Nets and Atlanta Hawks to take the biggest leap. Jason Kidd has given the Nets some stability, and the acquisition of Shareef Abdur-Rahim should help the Hawks move into the playoff picture.

Biggest plunge

It appears the 76ers will have a difficult time coming close to matching their record (56-26) last season. If Iverson, McKie and Snow recover quickly enough - and Coleman can somehow turn his game around - Philadelphia could still be a factor in the East.

The team that seems to be even more fragile is Miami, as evidenced by Pat Riley's desperation move in signing free-agent point guard Rod Strickland to replace an injured and inconsistent (when healthy) Anthony Carter.

Unless Strickland can stay out of trouble - and South Beach - the Heat's other concerns (Eddie Jones' shoulder the most current) will be compounded.

And the winner is ...

On paper, at least, it doesn't look as if anyone in the West has improved enough to topple O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Lakers. Had Michael Jordan wound up in San Antonio or maybe even Utah, that might have been possible.

But knowing the sometimes tense relationship between the two Lakers stars, it's always possible that Phil Jackson won't be able to continue keeping them from ending their translucent lovefest and bringing down the league's most dominant team. Still, the Spurs probably have the best shot.

Most Valuable Player

If O'Neal doesn't go out and have a monster year in order to reclaim the award he won two years ago, it could be a sign that the Lakers are in trouble. Then again, O'Neal's biggest competition could come from Bryant, who probably is the league's best all-around player.

But if Jordan puts up the same kind of numbers he did with the Bulls and the Wizards sneak into the playoffs, MJ could match his number of MVP awards with championships (six).

Coach of the Year

Jackson probably would have to go back to Chicago and resurrect the Bulls to get any consideration for this award, which he won once (in 1995-96) during the six championship seasons. The trend now is to vote for coaches whose teams overachieve.

If that holds true, the preseason candidates would have to be New Jersey's Byron Scott, Atlanta's Lon Kruger, Alvin Gentry of the Los Angeles Clippers and possibly Doug Collins in Washington, though the Michael Factor would impact the Wizards' new coach as it did Jackson in Chicago.

Rookie of the Year

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