FATE HAS conspired to offer the Sixers a once-in-a-franchise opportunity.

The Eagles are finishing their most disappointing season in franchise history, if not the entire city's history.

Then again, that distinction might go to the expensive, pedigreed Phillies, who went .500 and are limping into a swan-song season without even the benefit of a big-name acquisition; no offense, Michael Young.

The Flyers: Locked out, again, the linchpin organization in a joke of league incapable of capitalizing on its fringe sport's undeniable allure.

For the first time in the era AI - After Iverson - the Sixers have a chance to recapture the city.

Alas, fate seems to be doing its best to sabotage the Sixers' moment.

Their two best players are hurt.

The team won't be home for weeks.

The Sixers will fill this vacuum created by the failure or dormancy of the other teams. It will take some doing to keep from filling it with further disappointment.

Certainly, the Sixers could get healthier. They could play wonderfully on the road. They could return triumphant, clocking walk-up crowds and encouraging the purchase of season-ticket packs.

They have the talent to make that happen. Certainly, that is their wish.

They had other wishes, too.

They reconstructed their team hopeful that Andrew Bynum's knees would allow him to play at least by Christmas. The key piece in a trade that cost them All-Star and Olympian Andre Iguodala, Bynum was supposed to be the cornerstone.

Instead, Bynum's chronic arthritis, his prudent resistance to playing too soon and his heretofore unrealized affinity for bowling likely will keep him a badly coiffed, $16 million spectator, at least through Valentine's Day. There is an update scheduled after an MRI tomorrow.

They extended the contract of gifted point guard Jrue Holiday so that, as the years progress, Holiday could share the yoke with Bynum.

Indeed, Holiday is enjoying the best of his four seasons, with All-Star numbers: 18.4 points, 8.9 assists, 45.1 percent shooting.

Furthermore, Holiday is the clear leader of this team. He seized that mantle last spring, during a desperate, late-season run to and through the playoffs the Sixers.

It helps, too, that Holiday is well-spoken.

It does not help that Holiday sprained his left foot last week and has missed the last three games, all Sixers losses.

Speaking on Monday, after he gingerly shot a few jump shots at practice, Holiday made it clear that he was not going to rush any comeback: "I'm going to do whatever it takes to get my foot back healthy to get out here."

Which is wise. This sort of foot injury can linger for an entire season; maybe an entire career.

Holiday said he considered the upcoming stretch the most important of the season, when 10 of the Sixers' 11 games come on the road in a span of 19 days.

The opponents could be more formidable. But Dallas, struggling without Dirk Nowitzki (knee surgery) beat them Tuesday. Houston, where the Sixers play Wednesday, is .500 despite adding Jeremy Lin and James Harden.

With continued improvement, Holiday might be ready by Friday, when the Atlanta Hawks, winners of 12 of 15, visit.

Five of the remaining seven foes have winning records. The Lakers, among the losers, visited Sunday and easily handled the Sixers.

What often connects a team to a town are good players with strong personalities who are expected to remain with the club.

Holiday could become such a player. He has an understated ferocity that recalls beloved stars Cliff Lee and Claude Giroux.

Bynum is another, though he is more like Ryan Howard, with a talent load that no personality can match.

Who else, though, right now?

Holiday and general manager Tony DiLeo point to shooting guard Evan Turner. DiLeo contends that, in his third season, Turner is beginning to meet the expectations that come with being an No. 2 overall pick. "Evan has begun to accept his role," DiLeo said.

After a slow start this season, Turner has played very well for the last 15 games. However, playing in the absence of Holiday, Turner has added evidence that he cannot effectively run a team as the point guard - a role he repeatedly asserts he can handle.

How about Thaddeus Young?

Young is stronger, is gracious and thoughtful, but is still soft around the basket, still a well of untapped talent in his sixth season. With Bynum out, Young could have become the Sixers' halfcourt answer. He has not.

Newcomer Nick Young? His 30-point explosion Sunday against his hometown Lakers only underscores his inconsistency; he has scored in double-figures just nine times this season. Sometimes "Swaggy P" loses the swaggy.

The Sixers know they lack a magnetic personality. There is no Doctor J or Moses or Barkley or Iverson. There has not been for years.

"They could root for the whole team," Holiday said.

In this town, at this time, there is no alternative.