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Sixers rule East partly on merit


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000

If you're a little surprised Philadelphia has opened the season as the hottest team in the league, you're probably not the only one.

Wasn't it a few months ago we were hearing rumors about the Sixers trying to dump talented but troublesome All-Star Allen Iverson in a trade? And wasn't Philadelphia one of the most idle clubs during the free-agency fest, signing no one of consequence?

So, what are the Sixers doing with the best record in the league and joking about going undefeated?

"We're playing so well together, maybe we should make 82-0 a goal, and maybe we'll come close and break a record," Iverson said.

That's pushing it, but clearly Philadelphia is proving it could be more than just a playoff contender. The Sixers have rebounding, tenacious defensive players and Iverson, whom virtually no one in the league can handle.

What's more, Iverson seems more committed to the team, showing up for shootarounds and practices on time. So far.

As for the competition, Cleveland has started hot, but does anyone believe that's going to last? Indiana, even with its wholesale changes, could figure in the mix. Orlando could, too, once it gets Grant Hill back.

But the rest of the Eastern Conference is a mass of mediocrity. New York, Miami, Milwaukee and Toronto, playoffs teams a season ago, are struggling to find identities because of personnel changes and injuries.

That leaves the Sixers, who have virtually the same roster as last season, poised to take over the conference.

"They've gone through staying together and through the pains of losing in the playoffs," Heat coach Pat Riley said of the Sixers, eliminated from the post-season by the Pacers the past two seasons. "It seems as though (Iverson) is more of a leader, playing the game at a totally different level."

TOO MANY CHEFS IN THE KITCHEN?: Sometimes having too much of a good thing can be bad. Just look at the New York Knicks.

Most people figured the Knicks would be greatly improved with the addition of small forward Glen Rice. But they already were struggling to get shots for Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston, who play basically the same position as Rice.

Coach Jeff Van Gundy has tried all sorts of combinations to get the most out of his three stars, but he hasn't hit on the right formula. Lately, Houston and Sprewell have started, and Rice has come off the bench.

Houston is playing well, but Sprewell and Rice aren't lighting up Madison Square Garden like fans had hoped, which is partly why New York is hovering around .500.

"We've got three guys playing the same position and have to rotate, and it's hard to get a rhythm a lot of times," Sprewell said. "If Allan's going good, Jeff doesn't want to take him out, but he has to give me and Glen minutes."

HE SAID IT: "He will be a great player. I don't know if he is yet, but I think he will be." -- Magic coach Doc Rivers about guard Tracy McGrady.

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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