A few years ago, as the 76ers stumbled toward the end of the Allen Iverson epoch, the team they play tonight was held out as a model for building a contender.
The Chicago Bulls are still an example. Only now, they are a traveling lesson in how not to win in the NBA, or anywhere else.
As the Sixers make an improbable and exciting late-season run, it might be useful to consider the possible pitfalls in their path.
A few years ago, the Bulls were where the Sixers are now. They were a young, athletic, mostly homegrown team that overcame an 0-9 start to finish the season 47-25. Those 2004-05 Bulls - Kirk Hinrich, Tyson Chandler, rookies Ben Gordon and Luol Deng - made the playoffs for the first time since the Michael Jordan era. Their GM, John Paxson, was widely praised for being patient and letting his young team come together under coach Scott Skiles.
The Bulls made the playoffs three years in a row. They lost in the first round in 2005 and in 2006. Last year, they won a series against Miami before losing to Detroit in the second round.
The Bulls come to the Wachovia Center tonight with a record of 27-42. Skiles has been fired. Interim coach Jim Boylan has had to deal with a number of discipline issues, most recently an oncourt tirade from Andres Nocioni. A team once praised for its hustle and hard work is now described by the Chicago newspapers with words like underachieving and quit.
What does this have to do with the Sixers? Well, it demonstrates that there is a bridge between where they are and where they want to be, between being a young and surprising team and being a serious championship contender. And that bridge is long and rickety and subject to giving way at the most inopportune times.
Earlier this year, the Chicago Sun-Times did a story on how the Portland Trail Blazers were emulating Paxson's approach.
"It's absolutely paramount to bring in the right people," Portland GM Kevin Pritchard told the paper. "I've talked to John a lot, and they've been a model. They've done it through the draft, bringing in good guys who care about the team. I wanted to be around guys who enjoy the work, work hard and represent us well. . . . I told Pax many times the way they've been doing it is a model for us."
The Bulls' initial success resulted from patience with young players, much as the Sixers' current run has been generated by the improvement of Lou Williams and Rodney Carney. That patience was stretched after two consecutive first-round playoff exits. So Paxson made a big free-agent splash in 2006, signing Detroit's Ben Wallace to a four-year, $60-million contract.
"I'm glad to be part of a young, scrappy team," Wallace said at the time.
Except the Bulls weren't quite that young, scrappy team anymore. To make room in the lineup for Wallace, Paxson traded Chandler to New Orleans. Wallace and Skiles butted heads over foolish issues like headbands and taped ankles. Although the Bulls did win a series in last year's playoffs, they were eliminated by the rival Pistons. When the team started poorly again this year, Skiles was fired. Wallace was traded away at the deadline.
This is relevant because so much of the Sixers' plan seems to depend on the upcoming off-season, when a windfall of salary-cap space will allow them to add a major piece or two. Meanwhile, the current team has raised the stakes by beating some elite opponents and creeping up the standings.
This uptick is 100 percent positive. Still, there is some risk in reading too much into it. This is the NBA, where you have a reasonable chance of catching many teams on one of those low-effort nights in which the league specializes. A team that plays hard and at a high tempo, like these Sixers, will win some games just by outcaring opponents.
That doesn't diminish what the Sixers are doing. It is thrilling to watch a team come together under the direction of a couple of smart point guards, Andre Miller on the floor and Maurice Cheeks on the bench.
These Sixers have obliterated the cynical thought that they would be better off losing and improving their draft status - a legitimate idea at this time last year. It will be fun to watch this team in the playoffs. It will be a chance to learn and grow and generate real momentum for the future.
But that future will depend entirely on how president/GM Ed Stefanski constructs that bridge from here to where the Sixers want to go. Just ask the Chicago Bulls.