They are riding a nine-game losing streak that has dropped them to 5-15. They have just come off a weeklong, four-game road trip. Yet yesterday morning's 76ers practice at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine had more jump, more excitement and more media members than any this year.
Welcome back, Allen Iverson.
Iverson participated in his first practice with the team after a whirlwind week, when speculation turned to probability and finally reality as Iverson signed with the team on Wednesday then held an emotional press conference the next day.
Now it is time for him to prove his worth on the court. And though he admits to not being in the best shape, Iverson might have to log some extra minutes tonight when the Sixers host the Denver Nuggets. Andre Iguodala didn't practice yesterday due to a right ankle sprain he suffered late in the second quarter at Charlotte Saturday night. He is listed as a game-time decision. Also, rookie Jrue Holiday still is nursing a strained rotator cuff that caused him to miss Saturday's game after five straight starts.
Tonight's game will mark Iverson's first as a Sixer since Dec. 6, 2006, at Chicago. He was traded to Denver 13 days later.
"It was actually great, a lot of energy, a lot of veteran presence on the floor, a lot of hop to everybody's step," coach Eddie Jordan said. "It was really great, great energy and great anticipation. It was better than I expected."
For Iverson, it was a practice in which he realized where his conditioning is and how far behind his game is. He has not played since Nov. 2, for the Memphis Grizzlies.
"It was fun, but it was kind of tough, being that basically in the last 6 months I ain't played but 40 minutes, or something like that," said Iverson, who played 67 minutes in three games with the Grizzlies before a mutual parting. "I haven't played basketball in the last month. It was rough as far as my conditioning, but my basketball senses are there.
"I was probably doing things too fast, being as I'm trying to get back into a groove and get into a rhythm. At times I was just trying to rush. I think it's important for my coaching staff, my teammates and the fans to be a little patient with me because my rhythm's not there and the conditioning is definitely not there. It's going to take a little bit of steps to get where I want to be. But eventually I'll get there."
When asked if Iverson would be in the starting lineup tonight, Jordan said, "I anticipate it, yes."
Maybe Iverson will have to find his game a little faster than he anticipates. The team and Jordan would certainly benefit, as seven of the nine losses on the losing streak have been by a combined 26 points. That is, of course, if Iverson's game can still climb to the high altitude it's been for most of his 13-plus seasons, including 10-plus here.
"It's funny how we stopped and the coaches say the offense really looked better with him on the floor," Jordan said. "Obviously, it does. His reading of screens, the way he comes off screens is high level. How he used pick-and-rolls and how he reads defensive rotations, it's just so different. It's such a difference. And Lou [Williams] was getting to that point. Lou was doing that even at his early age. Talent makes any offense better, and certainly makes this offense hard to guard."
Williams will be out about another 6 weeks with a broken jaw.
Whether Iverson is still the player that Philly fans remember is yet to be seen. He is 34. He does have a lot of wear and tear on his rail-thin body. His desire to still be that player can't be questioned. It's just a question of what his body will allow, and how he will fit into Jordan's system.
"That's the toughest part, trying to learn the offenses and the defenses and getting into a rhythm and get used to doing it," he said. "Like I said, it's going to take a while. [Tonight], the whole thing is probably more for the fans than anything else. But it's going to take a while. It's frustrating for me because I was kind of in a rhythm before I left Memphis and then sitting out as much as I did kind of got off beat a little bit. But it won't take but a little while for me to get it back.
"I'm not going to lie to myself. I'm not in the basketball shape that I want to be in. At times out here I got real winded, and once you get winded like that your arms get weak, your legs get weak. Obviously I'm going to have to be the judge of that and be honest with coach and let him know when I have to get a blow. One thing I don't want to do is go out there and hurt the team. I want to contribute and do what's right for the team. If me not playing a lot of minutes is good for the team, then that's exactly what we should do."
Teammate Samuel Dalembert expressed what seemed to be felt throughout the gym.
"It was great, it was nice to see him back again," Dalembert said.
Like his teammates, Dalembert will benefit from the defensive attention Iverson is certain to garner, according to Jordan.
"He made a difference already in practice," Jordan said. "His talking, his presence, being a step ahead of the play defensively, his reading the defense and delivering the play against defensive rotations. Elton [Brand] got easier shots today, Sammy got easier shots today. I mean, anybody he played with got easier shots. And that's what good players do, they make their teammates better."
It all starts tonight.